Whether it be through intensified media attention, or due to the efforts of prominent scientists and other members of society, we have become increasingly aware of the detrimental effects that technological advances in industry and agriculture have on the global environment. However, as Carl Sagan points out in “Pulling the Plug on Mother Earth” awareness is not enough, nor is society’s response to the catastrophic implications of environmental pollution rapid enough. Slowness to implement sound strategies are in part due to the fact that the threats we face are nebulous, since they come in the form of particles of invisible gases and radioactivity, and in part because response to pollution appears to be so costly at individual, governmental and corporate levels. It appears that great material loss, as well as visual manifestation, have been the only ways to galvanize action towards altering and limiting technologies so that adverse chemicals and substances are no longer belched into the environment. For example, Sagan is right on the mark when he indicates that it took the reality that CFCs were destroying the sensitive but protective ozone layer to encourage large chemical companies to begin a gradual phase-out of these substances, even when scientists had already discovered the terrible effects of the chemical combination.
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Sagan says that to slowly stop usage of such obviously dangerous substances is not enough, for even with current conditions, it is estimated that the damaged ozone layer will require at least 100 years to repair itself. In the interim, we are risking danger to the food chain, global warming, and increased cases of skin cancer. Rather than risk these catastrophes, Sagan calls for the immediate phase-out of CFCs, as well as to improve energy usage, plant trees, and curb the population explosion as supplemental methods to improve the environment.
While the cause and effect relationship between technological advances and pollution have certainly influenced public outcry towards change, and influenced corporations to alter their poisoning mechanisms, the immediate change that Sagan calls for will necessarily meet with resistance. Sagan’s own “revelation” about mankind’s reticence to act unless literally “under the gun” remains a valid point. Destruction of the ozone layer and incidents such as the Exxon oil spill in Alaska are indeed enormous calamities, and we have been cautioned by at least one reputable scientist as to the risks we take by delaying reform, but these events are still not great enough to spawn greater action than handling the immediate situation. It is one thing to agree that car travel pollutes the environment, and to see dense smog in the Los Angeles Basin, but millions will still get in their vehicles tomorrow to drive their jobs. Current technologies available have been incorporated into lifestyle at a very practical level.
The large cogs of public and private interests also turn slowly due to this infrastructure of product usage which has become so firmly entrenched. Decisions that were made decades ago, such as automobile transit phasing out train transit, and the manufacture of energy through the building of nuclear plants, effect and influence us right now at very fundamental levels. Just as the ozone layer will take decades to repair itself, society and public acceptance requires time to shift and modify as well, as Sagan does well to point out.
The challenge to orchestrate the changes necessary for environmental improvement are further complicated in at least two ways. First, there are conflicting viewpoints as to the role government plays to influence private industry to replace technologically damaging processes with more ecologically sound technologies. Second, to phase out current technologies is a burden many corporations are unwilling to take on; implementation of new technologies adversely affects profit margins. Third, governmental failures in policy, according to Morgensen and Eisenstodt in “Profits are for Rape and Pillage,” create a situation where corporations have no incentive to move towards pollution control. Implementation of governmental governmental policies and programs designed to improve the environment fail because there is no incentive for legislators to determine the costs and benefits of their legislation, as there is a lack of appropriate experience in the matter. Legislators focus only on the appearance of implementing solutions for the popular vote, then allow their decisions to be clouded by lobbyists and political maneuverings. The resulting regulatory standards and technological mandates inappropriately micromanage the private sector, limiting their creativity to allocate resources to improve and change. Improving the environment is seen as conflicting with growth in business, and it becomes more of a risk than an opportunity. For example, new regulatory standards have to be met on national, rather regional levels, and technologies are mandated without the expertise to determine their practicality and availability.
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Morgenson and Eisenstodt indicate that it is incorrect to believe that increased governmental spending and regulations are the only solutions to the problems of a polluted planet. They call for the government to set financial and other incentives, such as taxation and Emission-Control Incentives (ECIs) so that producers and consumers can factor these considerations into their decision-making processes; they then call for the government to step away and allow the entrepreneurs and businesses that have the proper expertise to apply the incentives. They offer examples of successful ECI implementation in cities throughout the nation, asking why this type methodology cannot be implemented on a grander scale.
However, the immense problem regarding the lobbying and bipartisan influences on the government cannot be ignored. Morgenson and Eisenstodt do not provide a mechanism to counteract this dilemma, to make way for their solution. Neither do they offer an explanation as to how powerful governmentally-favored industries, such as the automobile and nuclear industries, which are responsible for large amounts of pollution would suddenly be open to scrutiny under Morgensen and Eisenstodt’s system. Clearly, some sort of interim activity seems necessary to unshield these intrinsically polluted areas.
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In addition, monetary incentives under Morgenson and Eisenstodt’s “program” take on a punitive aspect which may serve to create a climate where cleverness is devoted towards masking the dilemma rather than contributing to repairing the problem. Depending on the craftiness of parties concerned, the ECI incentive system might enable a merry-go-round of pollution-shifting within a certain region. And if the government has “stepped back” as Morgensen and Eisenstodt recommend, who is to ensure that these policies and procedures are adhered to ?
Morgensen and Eisenstodt must also overcome an additional hurdle – convincing the government that its programs are as ineffective as they say. The government’s environmental programs are working well, according to EPA administrator William K. Reilly in “The Green Thumb of Capitalism: The Environmental Benefits of Sustainable Growth.” Solid governmental programs have been developed for the improvement of the environment, indicates Reilly; several situations quantify its success. According to Reilly, the government is creating adequate market incentives to curb pollution, encourage energy efficiency and waste reduction through low-cost programs, in conjunction with the private sector.
To his credit, Reilly cites some powerful programs which may make at least short-term environmental and economic success: bioremediation, telecommuting, curtailing emissions and reusing resources. However, as Morgensen and Eisenstodt indicate, Reilly seems to follow a predictable governmental pattern to avoid discussion of the “favored” trucking and nuclear industries (industries with notoriously powerful lobbying abilities, according to Morgensen and Eisenstodt), among others. Rather, he focuses on the aftermath of the Exxon-Valdez cleanup catastrophe. It is not only curious that a catastrophe could be listed as a success in the larger scheme of environmental issues, it also does not address the aspect of making a corporation more accountable for its failures, or even discuss what changes have been made in the oil industry to prevent such catastrophes from occurring again.
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Additionally, the idea that accounting for the “national well-being” be measured by some other bean-counting system besides the GNP and NNP really avoids considerations of common sense. For example, if discontinuing usage of CFCs will enable the restoration of the ozone layer, it follows that proper policy-making would include the discontinuance of CFCs. Bean-counting does not provide for this logical relationship.
Reilly espouses the thought that capitalism is not a threat to the environment; he indicates that its mechanisms actually encourage decisions that respect environmental values. He evidences that the situation in the United States is exemplary in comparison to third-world counties in South America and in the former USSR. These are interesting observations, but they do not counter the observation made by Barry Commoner in “economic growth and Environmental Quality: How to Have Both.” Commoner points out that nearly all of the postwar technologies which have caused large-scale pollution were developed and put into use in the capitalist countries first; then, driven by profit maximization and market domination, these same technologies were sold to socialist countries. Intrinsic greed of the capitalism system is really then more of a threat to the environment than other political systems.
Commoner would agree with Morgensen/Eisenstodt and Reilly that economic growth and a cleaner environment are not mutually exclusive. The question of how to improve the environment while still enabling balanced or sustained economic growth, remains.
Commoner indicates that this balance is possible, if we carefully plan ways to use available technology to spur economic growth and solve ecological problems at the same time. He indicates that the current method of controlling emissions of toxic substances antagonizes incorrect beliefs that ecology and economy and mutually exclusive elements. He shows that the main reason for an increase in pollution is due to postwar changes in the technology of production. For example, our refuse piles have dramatically increased due to an increase in disposable goods, synthetic products are used in place of natural, decomposable ones, and the amount of energy and fuel has increased dramatically to produce goods. A shift towards decomposable goods would continue economic growth, be decrease garbage growth.
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Commoner indicates that as time passes, an increasing amount of capital will be spent on fuel and energy to produce goods. Commoner explains that it is a long-term incentive to find alternative sources of fuel, such as sunlight, that will not deplete at the rate fossil fuels do, and after an initial investment, take very little monetary capital to maintain.
Commoner suggests that this move must go hand-in-hand with current technology, in part because technology depends on its successful integration into the existing system. It also is important to achieve integration among major economic sectors, such as agriculture, auto manufacturing, and the oil industry. If changing technology is incorporated into current production methodologies, large capital expenditures can be minimized or folded into the overall business plan in a sensible way.
How to properly change the way that industrial decisions are made, especially by the “sacred cow” of auto manufacturing, is not clear. Commoner recommends that an investment policy which is social rather than under private control should be implemented. The policy-makers would choose the technology to be used to produce goods. This suggests that many more individuals could assess whether a technology was actually useful or moral to society.
However, this would be improbable in terms of actual implementation in at least four ways. First, although the U.S. can be said to be a distinct form of socialized capitalism, the Commoner’s procedure would most likely illicit outrage in terms of its invasiveness of the corporation. Additionally, the recommendation could be ignored by other countries because there is no enforcement mechanism. Second, even if Commoner’s recommendations were well-received, there is a problem with technology selection in that there will be cases where an apparently benign technology will be embraced, only to find out that it is harmful in some way. Sagan’s example of CPC’s is a case in point. Third, if the plan was implemented, the question remains as to who would decide on the technologies, and what mechanism would ensure that these persons would not be influenced by some lobbying power.
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Fourth, the reality exists that some companies would be unable to afford the costs of transforming to the designated technology. Commoner offers the suggestion that the money that is used to fund war and preparation for war should be funneled towards the transformation. How this would be practically implemented is not apparent.
It is apparent, however, that some policy consistent with the goals of decreasing pollutants and economic growth must be forthcoming. If we do not implement sound strategies incorporating these two facets together, perhaps economic concerns will become secondary, as Carl Sagan believes they now are.