The environment is a hazy concept, for most people – they know it’s important, in the abstract, but there aren’t many concrete examples of “the environment” that they can point to. Making matters worse, there is often a direct conflict between the vaguely-understood “environment” and the much more concrete interests of business.
This has been the dominant political problem with environmental regulation in the US – environmentalists have historically leaned heavily towards a “profits don’t matter” attitude, and business coalitions have fought back with a message of “environmentalism kills profits and jobs.” This argument has devolved to the point where neither side trusts the other to try to find a profitable, sustainable compromise, despite increasing evidence that modern technology can help companies gain a competitive advantage by being environmentally-friendly.
Despite the sound and fury created by this political conflict, the environment is important. As the Chinese are currently discovering, air and water pollution and contamination of farmland can become so severe that they sicken large numbers of people and undermine economic growth. The US reached this point in the 1960s, and public pressure for action was so great that a Republican president (Richard Nixon) established the Environmental Protection Agency and sponsored and signed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act to help curb air and water pollution and preserve endangered species.
The irony in the conflict between business and environmentalists is that these environmental regulations have been hugely profitable for the nation. The EPA’s own official accounting to Congress shows better than a net gain of at least $30 for each dollar that the Clean Air Act costs government and businesses in compliance, a return on investment (ROI) of roughly 3,000%!
Although the EPA has a vested interest in the results, they also have a vested interest in being seen as a credible source, and in this case they had no need to fudge or exaggerate, so their methodology tended toward the conservative. As they pointed out, there are many hard-to-quantify benefits of living in an unpolluted environment, so they simply left these benefits out of their calculations. The real gains would almost certainly be larger.
The hard-nosed economic benefits of other environmental regulations have also been substantial, if not as great as for air pollution. Because of this timely recognition of the importance of the environment to our economy and our future, the US is actually doing fairly well in terms of air and water pollution and other major contaminants in our environment, especially compared with where we were fifty years ago. However, we’re running into a number of other, newer problems – ones that have proven difficult to solve, but that pose as much or more of a threat as mercury pollution or acid rain did in the 70s.
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