When you were a child, were you commanded to clean your room by a parent?
Compelled to clear the table or clean the dishes after dinner?
Forced to fold the laundry?
Told to take the garbage or recycling outside to their proper bins?
Sure! These were demanded of me decades ago and our son is asked and expected to do the same today.
These are basic and shared responsibilities to maintain a nice, clean, and healthy home.
- Basic instructions.
- Clear expectations.
- Regular supervision.
- Performance standards.
- Threat of punishment.
- Occasional, necessary enforcement.
Had it not been for all the direct, parental attention, I may never have built the habits and skills necessary to do so as an adult. Playing outside with friends or firing up a video game console was far more attractive. Someone else can run the vacuum cleaner!
And we’ve all had that sibling or roommate who didn’t live up to basic standards of health and cleanliness. Too self-interested. Insufficiently motivated. Plays by their own rules.
But the consequences are shared. And, at the end of the day, someone has to clean up.
And so it is with environmental protection.
Why We Need Environmental Protection
“The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment.”
– Our Mission and What We Do, US Environmental Protection Agency
While “human health” and “the environment” are brought together through a conjunction in that mission statement, they’re intimately connected. Human health depends on clean air, clean water, and clean soil.
Environmental protection, however, has been falsely cast as the enemy of economic progress. Human health and the environment are necessary precursors to physical and economic well being.
A question we must always ask: At what price “progress?”
Do we trade 200 new jobs for a 2% increase in premature mortality rate? 400 jobs? How many?
Do we trade China’s double-digit economic growth for their “airpocalypse?”
“We are still in the earliest stages of learning how what we do for a living both threatens nature and fails to meet our deepest human needs. The impoverishment of our world and the devaluing of the priceless undermines our physical and economic well-being.” – Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, The Responsible Company
Of course, there are no easy answers, but the logic is simple: someone has to take responsibility for clean air, clean water, and clean soil. We must be good family members and roommates.
Bills always come due. And paying today is most often less expensive than paying tomorrow (which is to say nothing of quality of life in between).
But what if someone else can be made to pay? The selfish question of the spoiled sibling or bad roommate. And the mission of irresponsible companies.
If a self-interested company can legally externalize their costs onto all of us for the benefit of their own bottom line, why wouldn’t they?
Why install expensive technology to reduce the amount of poison being shot forth from a production facility into the air, water, or ground?
The company doesn’t have to pay for your child’s asthma medication. The company needn’t worry about your uncle’s heart disease. Or your own cancer.
A simple risk analysis helps the company budget some of the gains for legal settlements in case they get called out as a bad neighbor.
Pollution, then, transfers wealth from all of us … to private interests. You’re cleaning up after them. And you’re paying for it.
What are the costs?
Here’s the same for water pollution.
“Economic growth and environmental protection are not at odds. They’re opposite sides of the same coin if you’re looking at longer-term prosperity.”
– Henry Paulson
The ROI of Environmental Protection
Environmental protection improves quality of life. If you like to breathe fresh air or swim in a clean lake, this should be obvious to you.
Not as obvious, though, is the return on investment in environmental protection.
In a look at the first 30 years of the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act, the EPA calculates the average annual cost of the Act at $65,000,000,000 through 2020. That’s a high cost.
The benefits, however, were calculated at $2,000,000,000,000 for the year 2020. That’s 2 trillion with a “T” … and a 29.77x return on investment.
Reducing fine particulates and ozone levels through the Clean Air Act has reduced premature deaths and health ailments, among other benefits. This is basic quality of life and it’s money in our pockets.
Even if their estimates are wildly inaccurate, why wouldn’t we protect our economy’s primary goods for a 10x return? Or a 1.5x return? Or a breakeven?
Why an Administration Would Gut Environmental Protection
So why would we gut or even threaten the Environmental Protection Agency?
One reason: it sells well as pro-business and pro-economy.
But we sadly pay tomorrow for someone else’s profit today. The bill always comes due. Stripping environmental protections transfers wealth from the public to the bottom lines of private companies.
Without instruction, expectations, and enforcement, companies are free to pollute our air, water, and soil. They’re free to externalize costs and leave us with the bill. Filth, waste, and dangerous output that should be the responsibility of the polluting entity are passed on to the public.
The true costs of production are obscured as they spread out through the community in myriad ways. As a consequence, the true prices of our goods and services are obscured, too.
So it looks expensive to issue and enforce environmental protection. And false enemies are made.
“The ecology movement is being poisoned by becoming a part of politics. Once it goes into the political system, ecology becomes the enemy of other parties, instead of inspiring them from the outside as we do (now).” – Jacques Cousteau (October 1990)
Yes, Adulting Can Be Difficult
Cleaning up messes and keeping things clean is the adult thing to do. Children learn this through modeled behavior and through structured practice and enforcement.
“But adulting is difficult,” some say.
Sure, we might rather be playing video games, but it’s our responsibility to be good stewards.
And so it is with environmental protection.
“If we lose an excellent EPA, we will have lost something rare and very hard to recreate. And we will pay a very big bill in the future. Neither the economy nor the environment can afford a second-rate EPA.”
– Bill Drayton (March 1981)
Close to Home
It was EPA testing that revealed dozens of wells poisoned with perflourinated chemicals right here in Colorado Springs.
It’s the EPA holding Colorado Springs accountable for water quality violations and stormwater mismanagement.
And they’re far from perfect. The EPA’s been criticized for its slow enforcement of the Clean Air Act with a coal-fired power plant in downtown Colorado Springs.
As I’ve noted … adulting is difficult.
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