A new approach to environmental protection?
August 27, 1992
In which I complain, not for the first time, that in the generation after passage of the U.S. Environmental Protection Act in 1972, environmental protection remained a bigger issue than environmental regulation, yet for 25 years we have argued about the former almost exclusively in terms of the latter.
Apart from attending going-away parties for laid-off staffers, state government's deeper thinkers spend most of their time these days looking for new policy paradigms. It is thankless work, by and large -- their bosses usually can't even spell the word—but it is essential if life in this blessed commonwealth is to progress, quality-of-life-wise.
Perhaps no major set of programs in Illinois is more badly in need of fresh thinking than environmental protection. Even the people who run the system now in place don't like it, calling it litigious, expensive, divisive and inefficient—and those are the words they use when they know journalists are listening.
Only some 20 years old, the present system is decrepit. At the practical level, the problem is ignorance. (We still don't know for sure what harm most pollutants do or how, nor do we know enough about ecosystems to predict how pollutants move through air, soil, and water and how they change along the way.) At the philosophical level, the problem is confusion. Environmental protection—real environmental protection—is a bigger issue than environmental regulation, yet for 25 years we have argued about the former almost exclusively in terms of the latter.
Simple "Stop, thief!" policies sufficed in the 1970s against the spewing smokestack and the puking pipe. By comparison, coping with atmospheric warming and "non-point" water pollution, with product packaging and car commuting will require approaches of vexing subtlety and complexity.
Happily, the revolutions in computer and communications technology mean that it is now possible to monitor the impacts of human activity on the Illinois environment on a scale and in detail that was never before possible. For example, state agencies will soon have the power to monitor land use on a small scale using 20-yard-by-20-yard satellite snapshots, identifying problematic uses that threaten groundwater for example, or spotting changes in wetlands.
Less happily, environmental changes at the atmospheric scale remain beyond the ken of even our most awesome computing power. Global warming and acid rain are good examples. Regulators will have to balance environmental enhancement against economic cost in a context of scientific uncertainty. In the face of threats that refuse to reveal themselves clearly, we may have pay in jobs for reductions in atmospheric sulfur and greenhouse gases that will prove to be unneeded. Worse, we may have to pay ”knowing” that they may prove unneeded.
The Edgar administration's half-baked plan to merge the state's now-separate environmental research, rule-making, and enforcement agencies would have "streamlined" the process by consolidating it inside the IEPA. Such an approach assumes that the problem is bureaucratic, which misses the point. The problem is political. The IEPA's rules are essentially the USEPA's rules, its budget is substantially USEPA money. And USEPA policy is driven by a Congressional coalition that at the moment has no Midwestern representatives. As a result, the national environmental regulatory system has an anti-Midwest bias, and as long as IEPA functions as a surrogate of its national counterpart, the state's system will have that bias too.
Chauvinists have been making this complaint for years, as have the lackeys—you know who you are—of corporations irked at the agency for negating a competitive advantage. A state EPA that is hostage to local business interests is little more use to the rest of us than one that is hostage to Washington. But the regulations that restrict the markets for Illinois ethanol of the kind they make in Decatur and for Illinois coal of the kind they dig in Pawnee are based more on Congressional politics than science—politics furthermore of a fairly venal sort, which makes their claims on Illinoisans suspect if not fraudulent.
Put your ear to any wall in the 62706 Zip Code area and you will hear talk that Illinois business is organizing a task force of some sort to rethink the system, with an eye toward legislation. The prospect of business setting Illinois's environmental regulatory agenda leaves a lot of people uneasy, especially now that the environmentalists who might be expected to defend the public interest are politically moribund.
Business can indeed be bad neighbors, and never more so when they are busy making the dumb stuff that everyone else wants to buy at the lowest possible price. But a skeptic would have to acknowledge that more of the economic disasters predicted by business during the last 20 years actually happened than the ecological disasters predicted with equal fervor by environmentalists. The problem then is not that business hasn't the right to restructure Illinois' environmental regulation system, but that they aren't likely to be very good at it, having spent 20 years trying to make systems of regulations not work rather than work.
Here I will presume to drop a hint or two for their edification. Any new system must have as its foundation not just new administrative arrangements but new ideas about how public business ought to be done. The process must include a feedback mechanism so it can learn from its own mistakes. (The only feedback mechanism in the present system is the regulatee's lobbyist and lawyer.) Negotiated rule-making and consensus decision-making on the European model are more equitable and efficient ways to set the specific goals of pollution regulation, and market incentives have proven to be more effective in achieving them than old command-and-control style regulations.
Perhaps the central flaw in the old system of pollution regulation was the refusal (political in origins, although masquerading as principle) to interfere in the production decisions of companies. The result was that we spent 20 years trying to corral in the environment at large tons of stuff that didn't need to be produced in the first place. Any new system must have as its central idea the prevention, rather than the control, of pollution.
Prevention is prudent from a public health standpoint. Prevention also is politically more palatable, since it is always harder to get people to stop doing something they are already doing, especially if they are making money at it, than to not do something in the first place. Unfortunately, this is as true of bureaucracies as it is of car makers or plastics moguls. ■