Point Green the Government
by Tommy Held
Counterpoint Green the Environment
by Ryan Dougherty
We hear all too often about our bad habits of consumption and materialism, especially in terms of how damaging they are to the environment. American culture, marked by SUVs, fast food, and remarkable energy use, is using up our precious resources at unsustainable rates. I argue, however, that our environmentally destructive actions are not innate sources of human pleasure, but that people intrinsically care about the environment. The scale and complexity of the issues we face makes it difficult for most of us to participate in environmental stewardship. The ultimate question is: how do we improve our relationship with the environment and build the necessary environmentally friendly social structures?
Some might argue that finding such a solution requires us to fundamentally rethink how we view nature.This belief is rooted in a blind adherence to radical movements and grounded in the assertion that our institutional policies and half-assed excitement over the “Go Green Movement” have failed and will continue to do so.I fundamentally take issue with this premise. I believe that we can develop government regulation and innovative technologies that successfully protect the environment and lead us to a more sustainable
Government and technology have been and continue to be the customary modes in which environmental problems are addressed.I’ll admit that their record is not perfect - our government has not always been there to protect the environment from our abuses, and technology often progresses in ways that encourage or allow more pollution instead of helping us to cut back. But, government intervention remains the most effective method for reducing our environmental
For example, the Clean Air Act (CAA), signed by President Nixon in 1970, mandates the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) protection and improvement of the nation’s air quality and the stratospheric ozone layer. According to the EPA, the 1990 Amendments to the CAA are expected to generate $2 trillion of direct eco-friendly benefits by the year 2020, a figure substantially larger than the cost of its implementation, $65 billion. Roughly 85% of those economic benefits are attributable to reductions in premature mortality, accrediting decreased pollutants in our air. By that date we will see a decrease by more than 50% in the tons of volatile organic compounds in our air and a two-thirds reduction in the tons of Nitrogen Oxides and Sulfur Dioxide in our natural environment from 1990. As it stands today, the CAA, EPA, and similar legislation around the world are the only sources of large-scale mitigation of the negative environmental effects of production and consumption
Why can’t we achieve this sort of outcome every time we are confronted with an environmental problem? There are certainly limitations to regulation of environmental issues, but understanding those barriers allows us to circumvent them. One such limitation is political will, or the courage to make decisions that are beneficial in the long run but risky politically. Many of our politicians are scared to push for stronger environmental protections, especially in a time of economic uncertainty, when it might cost them reelection. A heavily Democratic House of Representatives passed a cap-and-trade bill in 2009 that would have put an upper limit on greenhouse gas emissions, but it lost momentum in the Senate partly because not enough Senators were willing to show political will and stand up for what was often misrepresented as a “cap-and-tax” abomination.
Lobbying and campaign finance rules in politics also sap political will, especially in relation to environmental protection. Pro-corporate pollution lobbies are better funded than groups like the Sierra Club. Moreover, industrial and other pollution-heavy corporations received a boost when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the government has no business limiting political spending by corporations in elections, meaning corporate dollars are pumped, faster than oil rigs, into the back pockets of our Senators, perverting any chance of political will for our environment.
Despite these political roadblocks, there are governmental approaches our world has yet to conceptualize – consider local, state, federal and international governments choosing integrative and cooperative strategies to build an attitude and culture aimed at protecting the natural environment. Environmental scholar and U-M professor Barry Rabe has proposed this brilliant type of federalism, designing environmental policy specific to communities’ needs, yet fitting into a broader framework. By tailoring larger regulations to local circumstances, politicians will easily be able to overcome the limits of political will and combat lobbying attempts. Combined with the ability of the government to act on a large scale these reforms enable regulation to address environmental issues broadly and effectively.
With special consideration to tackling environmentally destructive lobbying and promoting political will, we can achieve a better and more environmentally sound outcome when we are confronted with the issues consumerism and materialism have brought along with them. By building on the remarkable progress we have already made, our many levels of government can work together to maintain themselves as the most effective stewards of the environment.
In the mid-1500s, it was proposed that the Earth was in fact not the center of the universe, bringing about new conceptualizations of science and a shift in thought of humanity’s position and role in the world. Now another conceptual revolution is necessary: humankind is not the center of Earth’s universe, rather a small byproduct in its unfolding. All life remains a mystery, yet through research humankind has been able to investigate amazing evolutionary processes —single cells adapt through random mutations to create unbelievably diverse beings: fungi, animals, plants, archaea, and bacteria. None of these creatures are more important than another; each has its own capabilities, some more astounding and complex than others.
Primarily for economic reasons, governmental regulation has been promoted as the best way to sustainably protect our natural world, but I am concerned this anthropocentric tendency undercuts the potential for a new and highly beneficial idealization of our natural environment. The current framing of our environmental philosophy is flawed because it bases the value of pro-environmental policies or actions on their perceived utility to humans. To pursue a healthier and happier existence, humankind must learn to coexist with all nonhuman entities in harmonious equality. By only protecting the organisms and processes in the biosphere that we directly benefit from, unforeseen consequences in interrupting nature’s codependent balances could lead to our extinction. But even this possibility is beside the point: ideology based on utility disregards the intrinsic rights of the natural world, which we have assumed control over and poorly attended to through large, negligent governmental institutions. Moreover, this ideology denies future opportunities to understand the complexity of life forms humans have yet to discover.
It is naïve to think we can straightforwardly manipulate Earth’s delicate processes; one small change can cascade into a variety of unforeseeable effects. For example, through engineering and cultivating disease-resistant crops, many of their natural beneficial traits have been removed. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed significantly lower levels of nutrients in broccoli, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, strawberries, and green peppers between 1950 to 1999. But the issue is even more fundamental. In a fabulous little book called Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright catalogs how past civilizations have fallen as a result of their reliance on technology that exhausts their natural resources. Combined with the well known warming of our planet resulting from industrialization, these alarming facts indicate an urgent need to change human-environment interactions.
Governmental reform has had its chance and failed. In the Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA, the EPA was granted the right to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. Despite judicially backed measures, coal-mining states have triumphantly fought to protect their economic welfare, relying largely on political lobbies. For instance, Wyoming, the biggest coal-producing state, had an anti-Kyoto Protocol law that prevented the Environmental Quality Act from regulating their greenhouse gas emissions. These environmentally damaging actions are reproduced at all levels of government. The Executive Branch, citing harm to the US economy, decided against an international agreement to take action against global warming in 2001 by rejecting the Kyoto Protocol. NASA stated that “[a]lternative sources of energy are more expensive to use than fossil fuels,” suggesting that persuading large businesses to change dirty habits will be difficult, especially if it means lowering profits. Simply put: government and big businesses have invested in sustaining their own existence, not that of the environment.
Nature is too precious, and this issue is too urgent for us to rely on government regulation that places economic and political values ahead of ecological ones. Responsibility cannot be passed off to government officials: each individual relies heavily on the environment and needs to act accordingly. From food and nutrients, to fresh air and stable climates—protecting nature begins with our everyday interactions.
Preserving, cultivating and coexisting with nature must begin with the people. If individuals prioritized the environment in their everyday lives, their attitudes would saturate society from the ground up. The new goal of humankind should be to understand our own existence through relationships with other life forms. By making our relationship with nature a foundation of the way we live and understand our lives, the failures of government regulation can be overcome. Once established, we will let our decisions, in every facet of life, flow from that understanding.
Of course, progress is slow. What can those of us who care do today? It’s the simple things. Don’t buy plastic water bottles. Challenge yourself; see if you can recycle more than you throw out. Reuse products (a little creativity goes a far way). Compost food and grow your own. Small steps for change must grow before they can supplant our giant corporate and governmental institutions, but they are necessary if we are to build a more sustainable world. If I haven’t convinced you, or if you’re just not motivated, then go take a walk in the Arboretum. Look at all the life around you—growing, changing, and dying. Remind yourself that we all share a common ancestor. We all belong to the community of beings: it is time for us to act like it.
About the Issue
Point author: Tommy Held is a senior in the Ford School of Public Policy, with a focus area in International Environmental Policy.
Counterpoint author: Ryan Doughtery is a sophomore in LS&A studying psychology. He wants to be a researcher and writer.
Edited by: Lexie Tourek and Matt Friedrichs
Cover by: Benjamin English