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A Sustainable True-Cost Economy Promises an Escape from Massive Water Pollution

by Brent Blackwelder

Brent Blackwelder

A year ago, I wrote about how a true-cost steady state economy would deal with water pollution. Last August, the alarming green slime at the west end of Lake Erie was so bad that it shut down Toledo’s water supply for half a million people. Who would pay the tremendous damages caused by the green slime? Certainly not the industrial agricultural interests who were responsible for about two-thirds of the problem!

Our current U.S. economy routinely lets polluters off the hook and even rewards them with subsidies, and the same is generally true for the global economy. During the past twelve months, water pollution has gone from bad to worse as exploding rail freight trains loaded with tar sands oil have caught on fire, causing derailments and spilling contaminants into rivers.

Many people are under the mistaken impression that violations of the Clean Water Act are rare. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network has just completed an analysis of water pollution violators in a section of the Potomac River Basin. (full report forthcoming; for background, see the Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s Upper Potomac River Basin campaigns.) Basin wide, there are over 2000 facilities with permits to discharge pollutants into the Potomac River. Of the 293 facilities in the Upper Potomac region, more than 10% had violated their permit conditions during the last three years! Just think of the increased enforcement costs if a region jumps from 5% to 10% non-compliance. The enforcement workload doubles!

Reports from the Pacific coast, from California to Alaska, are disturbing because they indicate that some fisheries and shell fisheries may be on the tipping point of collapse. Worldwide, we are seeing industrial civilization screw up clean water through nutrient loading from gigantic crop monocultures and animal factory slums. It’s a recipe for catastrophe. Several dead zones at the mouths of great rivers like the Mississippi have gained notoriety, but the public is not aware that there are now hundreds of such zones worldwide.

Animas River.Schatzl and Pickles

The Animas River before the toxic metals of the Gold King Mine spill turned it bright orange. Photo Credit: Schatzl and Pickles.

The latest water pollution debacle occurred just this month (August 2015) in the Colorado Rockies. A state of emergency was declared as the Animas River turned orange when millions of gallons of toxic heavy metals and carcinogens from the Gold King Mine spilled and created a hazardous mess at the very peak of summer recreation.

Recreation in this part of Colorado is a crucial component of the economy. One river outfitter has had to lay off over twenty employees. Agencies have allowed the leakage at gold mines like the Gold King Mine to persist for years without being cleaned up.

These accidents would be far less likely to occur in a sustainable steady state economy. A steady state economy would not incentivize pollution. It would not allow externalization of pollution and health costs, and it would eliminate subsidies for extraction of hardrock minerals and fossil fuels. Globally, an estimated $600 billion per year in subsidies is provided annually to the fossil fuels industry, in contrast to $100 billion for wind, solar, and other renewable energies.

A sustainable economy would place genuine value on the many benefits provided by clean water and free flowing rivers, including diverse fisheries, a variety of recreation activities, beautiful scenery, and a healthy water supply. The global economy looks upon water more as a commodity, and trade agreements attempt to facilitate the privatization of water. A sustainable true-cost economy, on the other hand, does not externalize pollution impacts or exclude from economic calculation the numerous but less tangible benefits obtained from free-flowing rivers.

A sustainable true-cost economy holds so much promise, but the immense challenge of transitioning to such an economy can seem daunting. Tackling our water pollution crisis illuminates some highly actionable steps we could take immediately to start making a steady state economy a reality.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could take an initial step toward a true-cost economy by requiring the many companies reporting to it to disclose their pollution impacts (externalities). Impossible you say? A few years ago it seemed impossible to get the SEC to require disclosure of CEO salaries. But guess what? It just happened—thanks to leadership by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) along with tremendous grassroots pressure.

The SEC will now require publicly-owned corporations to disclose how much their CEOs make compared with the median wage of their workers. The Washington Post reported that the pay gap between executives and unskilled workers is about 300 to 1, not 30 to 1 as most Americans think. This precedent-setting action by the SEC should be followed by other campaigns directed at the SEC, starting with action on externalities.

In a true-cost economy, the price tag for goods and services that cause serious damage to life support systems would be so high that such products would not be produced. We would do well to recall that there is no economy on a dead planet. Critics who say that civilizations are nowhere close to causing ecosystem collapses do not consider the scientific evidence on planetary boundaries, nor the lessons from past collapses of societies. I think we should seize on the outrage over all the water pollution disasters in 2014 and 2015 and push for new economic structures that will provide long-term solutions.

Rescuing Obama from the Slippery Slope

by Brian Czech

One year ago this week I wrote that Barack Obama had finally done it. He had taken the tantalizing trail to a notoriously slippery slope. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, he promised, “federal agencies (will) ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth.” In other words, we would have our environmental cake and eat it too, for the sake of economic growth.

For some time after the op-ed, Obama did little to promulgate this win-win rhetoric, and those of us who prefer the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth regained some hope. Economic growth is a serious topic, and so is environmental protection. We’d like Obama to come clean and tell it like it is: There is a fundamental trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection.

Maybe the truth about economic growth and environmental protection doesn’t make for an easier choice between the two, but what kind of a choice can be borne of a lie?

Now it’s fairly reasonable for Obama to say, as he did last month in a speech to EPA employees, that “Safeguarding our environment is also about strengthening the economy.” There is no doubt that safeguarding our environment protects the strength of the economy. But Obama’s exact wording is a stretch because strengthening usually connotes growing the economy. That cannot be done while truly safeguarding the environment. Economic growth — increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate — does and must have a growing environmental impact. That’s Ecological Economics 101.

Obama fell further down the slippery slope with “I do not buy the notion that we have to make a choice between having clean air and clean water and growing this economy in a robust way. I think that is a false debate.” But I don’t buy the notion that Obama is that oblivious to the truth. Surely he knows our skies, rivers and oceans gradually fill with the byproducts of production and consumption. But as with all politicians, he also knows that the average voter doesn’t detect the dulling of the skies or the graying of the waters during the course of one electoral cycle. So he hunkers down on the slippery slope, content in avoiding the attention of a really inconvenient truth.

Once in awhile, though, a spotlight shines on the slope, such as in Sunday’s Washington Post article by Juliet Eilperin, “Obama administration slows environmental rules as it weighs political cost.” Rules aimed at curbing auto emissions are on hold, as is a proposal to regulate soot, because of the toll these and other environmental protections would take from the rate of economic growth. In other words, the administration knows darn-tootin’ well that bona fide environmental “safeguarding” can’t be reconciled with economic growth. They also suspect that the political cost of prioritizing environmental protection over economic growth at this point in history is more than they are willing to pay.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, this prioritizing of economic growth over environmental protection in a world of endangered species, oil spills, and climate change, if only presidents who model themselves after Ol’ Abe Lincoln were at least forthright about the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. Why can’t Obama just come out and say, “I realize that the #1 concern among Americans today is jobs. That’s why I’m doing all I can to help grow the economy. And I’ll continue to do this, as long as we realize that growing the economy does have a growing impact on the environment too. So while we’re growing the economy today, we must turn some of our attention to how we can transition tomorrow to a stable economy, or what they call a ‘steady state economy.’ That’s the vision of the future, and the sooner we explore it, the more prepared we’ll be.” Or something like that? At least then we could respect him for telling the truth on economic growth and environmental protection.

Would that really get him unelected? Who says? How do they know?

But the truth-telling onus is not entirely on Obama. Frankly, I think we should be far more disappointed with the many “environmental” organizations and agencies who themselves pollute the internet and airwaves with the win-win wimpsmanship. They’re the ones who could empower Obama to tell it like it is without being so worried about political consequences. As it is now, it’s hard to blame Obama for fearing the role of Lone Ranger in a wilderness of intellectual laziness.

It’s too late in this article to elaborate on these organizations and what their problems are, but count on it for another day in the Daly News.

Economic and Environmental Perspective on President Reagan on the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of His Birth

by Brent Blackwelder

Amid all the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, it is important to note that his two-term presidency kindled a philosophy that has undermined governance in the United States, run in the opposite direction from a sustainable economy, and exhibited hostility toward a clean energy basis for the global economy. This was not, however, a strategy shared broadly by the Republican Party at that time.

The bipartisanship in Congress in the 1970s, under both Republican and Democrat presidents, enabled the passage of 30 major environmental laws – laws that established the United States as the world leader in the quest for clean air and clean water.  Congress set a framework of decision making in the federal government to ensure that long-range and short-range environmental impacts were integrated into economic decision making and that alternatives to proposed governmental actions were evaluated.  Other nations looked up to America as a pace-setter on energy and the environmental policy, and they adopted a number of our new laws for their own use.

President Nixon signed the keystone law for environmental protection, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and he appointed as heads of the  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Council on Environmental Quality two highly qualified Republicans, Bill Ruckelshaus and Russell Train, who believed in the mission of these agencies.

Had the 1980 election turned out differently, the United States might have become a clean energy pioneer.  And the emerging field of ecological economics might have taken center stage as the producer of policies for a sustainable economy. With the election of President Reagan, however, these hopes were dashed.

America had experienced the oil crisis of 1973, memorable for its long gasoline lines.  As a result of that experience, citizens across the nation were moving forward with innovative measures to save energy and develop renewable energy technologies.  In this spirit, President Carter had placed solar panels on the White House roof.  America, many of us thought, was poised to lead the world in a clean energy revolution.  Reagan had other ideas.  He had the solar collectors removed from the White House and gave the green light for all-out exploitation of fossil fuels.  Reagan’s idea of environmental stewardship was clearing brush and picking up fallen branches.

When Reagan took office in 1981, he appointed anti-environment zealots James Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Ann Gorsuch as Administrator of EPA.  Ann Gorsuch carried out a Machiavellian plan to prevent much from happening at EPA as she repeatedly rearranged the office spaces at the agency.  During her 22 months as agency head, she cut the budget of the EPA by over 20%, reduced the number of cases filed against polluters, relaxed Clean Air Act regulations, and facilitated the spraying of restricted-use pesticides. She cut the total number of agency employees just as its responsibilities were doubling and hired staff from the very industries they were supposed to be regulating.  Rita Lavelle, an Assistant Administrator of EPA, was convicted on federal charges of perjury related to irregularities and the misuse of federal cleanup money at a big hazardous waste dump, the Stringfellow Acid Pits.

But the greatest damage of all came from Reagan’s repeated message to the American people that government is the problem, that government is not good but evil, that government hinders the free enterprise system.  By appointing people who didn’t really believe in government or in the constitutionality of the agencies they were running, he produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Reagan fully embraced the economics of Milton Friedman, the antithesis of Herman Daly’s  steady state economics.  Friedman’s economics of deregulation sought to undo the safeguards put in place following the Great Depression, and in so doing, paved the way for the global financial scandal that precipitated the crisis of 2008 and governmental bailouts of the private sector.

Looking to the future, the U.S. government is being confronted by the ironic (for a so-called conservative) legacy of George W. Bush – a massive and growing deficit.  The Tea Party freshmen legislators are fighting to hold the Republican leadership to its promise to cut $100 billion from the federal budget; however, getting there is proving elusive for them.  Coming to the rescue in this dire situation is the Green Scissors plan of Friends of the Earth and Taxpayers for Common Sense.  The Green Scissors plan shows how to obtain  $200 billion in savings between 2011 and 2015 by getting rid of government subsidies to the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear industries, and by scrapping some boondoggle water development schemes of the Army Corps of Engineers and a handful of absurd highway projects.  In contrast to the outrage over some of the proposed Republican budget cuts, the Green Scissors cuts command popular support, because they save money while preventing environmental damage at the same time.  It’s a plan that anyone, except maybe Ronald Reagan and his anti-environment appointees, would support.