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Bill Clinton’s Legacy: The Inconvenient Irony

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechThey say the ironies never cease, and last week the EPA headquarters were named the “William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building.” But irony and legacy are not always good bedfellows. Before the history writers get carried away and bestow upon Clinton the label of Environmental Protector, let’s look at the rest of the story…

The most notable thing about Bill Clinton is that he had what it took to get elected, in spades. A passion for greatness, photographic memory, talk-show voice — the political package was perfect. If anyone was ever destined to be president, it was Clinton.

That’s not the same as being destined for an honorable legacy.

Something stands squarely between Clinton and the west wing of the political hall of fame. That’s the wing reserved for wise, dignified statesmen. The likes of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt reside in the west wing.

We’re not talking about little vices standing in the way. McDonald’s hamburgers and the occasional cigars (the ones for actually smoking) just made Clinton seem at once more like us and Winston Churchill. But Churchill makes the west wing; Clinton doesn’t. Not yet at least.

Was it the “other cigar” and sex with an intern, then? That’s definitely not good, but Thomas Jefferson (allegedly) had children out of wedlock. FDR consorted with a mistress and possibly several. Yet Jefferson and Roosevelt are squarely in the west wing, because they handled profound social issues with deep and nuanced dignity, not with cheap rhetorical tricks.

Take Jefferson, for example. If you stop by his Monticello home near Charlottesville, Virginia, you’ll find the bust of Francois Quesnay at the entrance. Next to Jefferson’s upstairs bedroom with the telescope, you’ll find Quesnay’s Tableau Economique adorning the shelves. In the Tableau, Quesnay described in great detail how agricultural production had to be – physically, scientifically had to be – the foundation of the economy. It wasn’t information, it wasn’t pixie dust, it was agriculture at the foundation, feeding the human body and ultimately the body politic. Jefferson developed a deep understanding of that as he honed his vision of American society and its economy.

In a happy coincidence, Jefferson was taken with the agricultural arts, as also evidenced at Monticello. In a masterful expression of agricultural and engineering savvy, he also helped lay out the University of Virginia. So Jefferson’s legacy is on the land, rooted in the recesses of a studious mind. He knew a lot about the environment; his name would have given more gravitas to EPA headquarters than Clinton’s.

But while Jefferson loved the earth, he was no tree hugger. He got the big picture, too. Without agricultural surplus, there was no division of labor, no jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors, and no increase in the standard of living.

When Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to discover the West, he knew there was a limit to what was in the East, and for that matter the West as well. He knew the frontier would get homesteaded and farmed, with the nooks and crannies eventually filled in with manufacturing and services. He knew the growing economy would use up the land and resources and pollute the environment in proportion.

In other words, Jefferson knew there was a limit to economic growth. But he wanted that limit to be met with the virtues of a democratic republic. It was left to future statesmen to adapt the constitutional democracy to a full-world economy.

Thomas Jefferson, with whatever personal weakness, was a brilliant, studied man of immense civic virtue. Now can you imagine Jefferson uttering nonsense like, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”?

How about Abraham Lincoln on the stump? Can you imagine him tarnishing his legacy with, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” Of course not. He wasn’t called Honest Abe for nothing.

But Clinton.. who doesn’t remember the old win-win rhetoric that permeated his presidential oratory as well as that of his Cabinet (probably at his beckoning). No one on earth, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, is more associated with the slippery salesmanship, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!”

For Jefferson or Lincoln, limits to growth and environmental protection weren’t yet major, pressing issues. That’s why you won’t find clear quotes about the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection in their transcripts. But Roosevelt, half a century before Clinton, saw the writing on the wall and was already calling for a steady state economy:

Our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land… Clearly, all this calls for a re-appraisal of values. A mere builder of more industrial plants, a creator of more railroad systems, an organizer of more corporations, is as likely to be a danger as a help… Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand.1

Unfortunately for all, Roosevelt’s steady statesmanship was interrupted by the exigencies of World War II. After that, thanks partly to the Keynesian revolution in economics and the establishment of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the politics of economic growth took over in domestic policy making and international affairs.

This was all conducive to Wall Street and Madison Avenue taking over in American cultural affairs as well. Then along came Clinton, master politician, and Americans were all too ripe for, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” We wanted to have our cake and eat it too, and Clinton wasn’t truthful enough to tell us we couldn’t.

Actually some folks, especially in the natural resource professions, knew from the get-go something was wrong with the win-win rhetoric. Yet Americans by the beltway were led astray. City folks weren’t paying enough attention to the land; likewise country folks hadn’t studied the environmental pressures emanating from the urban sectors.

Most environmental problems build slowly, almost imperceptibly as the economy weaves its way through the ecosystem. It takes a savvy society to connect the dots from environmental degradation to the economic causes before the problems are pronounced and obvious to all. Think ozone hole, climate change, and ocean acidification. It helps immensely to have a president — like FDR — connecting the dots for us and reminding us of the connection. Unfortunately his successors failed to follow suit.

Wherever the lack of awareness, city or country, Clinton exploited it by claiming we could have our cake and eat it too. As a whole — public, private, educational and non-profit sectors — the American body politic was vulnerable to this corruption of the truth.

The legacy is insidious, systemic, and disastrous. Look around and you’ll see it everywhere. The president of The Nature Conservancy, with a blurb from Clinton, thinks there is some kind of natural capitalism that will overcome the trade-off between growth and conservation. In the midst of a 90% fossil-fueled economy, the self-proclaimed “Independent Business Voice for the Environment” tells us that “Addressing Climate Change Grows Our Economy.” Even the National Wildlife Federation, despite heavy activism on climate change, has a president who denies there is a conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation.

With attitudes like that in the “environmental” community, what can we expect from the hard-core corporate community and politicians dealing with endangered species and climate change? They all expect environmental protection to accommodate growth as usual. Where are the checks and balances?

Bill Clinton cutting a cake

He can’t have his cake and eat it too! Photo credit: Hazir Reka.

Thanks in no small measure to the win-win legacy of Clinton, these days it seems everything good for the environment has to be premised upon economic growth or it won’t even be considered. No one wants to deal with the reality that environmental protection — biodiversity conservation, climate stabilization, clean air and water, sustainable fisheries, ecological integrity — cannot be reconciled with perpetually more production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate.

And yet, if you want a handy indicator of biodiversity loss and other environmental impact, nothing can beat GDP. GDP up, biodiversity down. GDP up, green space down. GDP up, Mother Nature down. Environmental impact? “It’s the economy, stupid!” And nothing can beat your common sense in recognizing that. It doesn’t take the Tableau Economique to understand that growing the economy means growing the ecological footprint. All you have to do is connect the dots. It helps if the president does likewise.

Regarding Clinton, the “rest of the rest” of the story is yet to be told, because Clinton is still alive and well. That could be a good thing because, lo and behold, here and there are cracks in the rhetoric. Just last week, according to The Guardian, Clinton “warned that the US needs to cut its consumption of natural resources if it is to stave off the threats of climate change and rising prices.” So there’s some leadership consistent with environmental protection, which in turn is the first prerequisite of economic sustainability. (Not growth, but sustainability.)

At the same time, Clinton was stuck in his stubborn past, obsessed with economic growth and not able to get over the hump, onto the path of truth. He was still hedging, still trying to have his cake and eat it too. As a corollary to the old win-win rhetoric, he said, “We can grow even faster if we use less energy.”

Can you believe that?

Mr. Clinton, there is something seriously wrong with your approach to environmental protection and economic sustainability. Not only is it scientifically fallacious, it is roughly akin to telling a drug addict, “You can get even higher if you use less dope.” This approach will keep you somewhere near the Richard Nixon Room in the political hall of fame.

Nixon, too, had all the political tools. He was clever as could be, and boy could he get elected. He just couldn’t come clean on some crucial issues. He cannot sit with Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt in the west wing. Never.

Mr. Clinton, you don’t have an election coming up. You don’t have to ride the fence any more. Why not come right out and say that growing the economy in the 21st century is causing more problems — big problems — than it solves. You’ll have plenty of backing, including from E.O. Wilson, who you credit for some of your thoughts on sustainability. There’s also the likes of Jane Goodall, David Suzuki, even Chris Matthews from MSNBC to back you up. No doubt Jimmy Carter too would support the transition to a steady state economy.

But frankly you’re the important one, Mr. Clinton. You’re on the circuit, you’ve got media coverage, and you’re in the limelight/twilight of an extremely powerful run. Imagine the possibilities if you tell it like it like it is!

If you can do this, then Wall Street and the Fed will act a little differently, along with the Council of Economic Advisers, Congress, the Cabinet, the World Bank, and all others involved in fiscal and monetary policy matters. Instead of pulling out all the stops for growth, these policy makers can gradually start setting the levers and buttons back toward a sustainable, steady state economy. They can point to you and your leadership; you’ll empower them to do the right thing. And one day posterity can point to you in the west wing of the political hall of fame with Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR.

Who wants to sit there with Nixon? Clever but cynical, and very much discredited.

1See Czech, B. 2013. Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution. Page 228.

Remembering History

Comment to Tim Murray and Tom Butler

by Lisi Krall

It is worthwhile to recall history as we ponder Tim Murray’s proposition that we direct our “energy into stopping economic growth” rather than saving “the environment piecemeal” through conservation efforts.  It’s enlightening to go back to Thomas Jefferson just to gain some perspective on what happened when the market economy was fertilized with the industrial revolution.  Thomas Jefferson, writing in preindustrial America, thought one of the attributes of our nation that would enable us to “become happy and prosperous people” was the fact that we possessed “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation.”  Do the math, because it gives you some perspective on Jefferson’s world.  Apparently Jefferson thought we had a big enough unsettled country for agricultural expansion to take place for 20,000 years.   Clearly, Jefferson didn’t anticipate what was coming.  The pace and reach of economic expansion were beyond anything he could have imagined as he looked westward from Monticello at the turn of the 19th century.  Yet little more than a century after Jefferson wrote these words the country had become an industrial giant and most of the land had been given over to private ownership.

It was this pace of economic expansion coupled with a mostly wild country that gave rise to the conservation movement in the United States.  It quickly became abundantly clear that in the wake of our great economic experiment, nothing would be sacred and there was much to lose. In the United States, the conservation movement literally grew out of the rapacious speed and reach of 19th and 20th century capitalism and in this sense was very organic.  The preservation arm of the conservation movement became manifest in a wilderness ethos.  The wilderness ethos spoke to something foreboding about our so- called economic progress, the fact that we clearly had the capacity to put an end to the magic and pulse of a mostly untrammeled country in no short order.  The conservation movement, especially the preservation branch of that movement, helped us to think more critically about the meaning of progress and the place of humans on the earth.  Preservation was a cultural response to the most egregious impulses of capitalism.   It was a cultural meditation and institutional grappling with what a healthy human ecology should look like and when it was necessary to stop so-called economic progress for the sake of something more important.  It led John Collier to comment:

The profit-motive finds no use in Wilderness; and Wilderness can perish utterly in its remote silences, without bringing the profit-seeking temple down in ruin on men’s heads. Wilderness therefore, as a symbol of all in the human aspiration and caring which holds itself out from the profit-pursuing imperative, can safely be crushed down.  One after another of the absolutism of profit-pursuit has been somewhat tamed, somewhat restrained, during the century behind us.  There remains Wilderness, as a fact and an aspiration: Wilderness, which by its very definition says to the money-profit motive: You shall not enter here.

We might ask ourselves whether we would have the same impulse to stop economic growth were it not for all the preservation and conservation that has heretofore taken place.

I don’t think there’s any question that the form the preservation movement has taken has been historically conditioned.  Preservation has functioned on the basis of setting aside wild places and otherwise leaving the economic engine of capitalism in place. No one would disagree with the fact that we’ve reached a different historical moment where those involved in preservation and conservation need to be more vocal about ending an economic arrangement based on growth.  In fact, the limits to this historically specific preservation strategy have been understood for quite some time.  In the mid 20th century Aldo Leopold makes a “plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.”  Clearly he understood the limitations of this approach.  Yet it is one thing to acknowledge this and another to claim, as Murray does, that if our energy “to save the environment piecemeal had been put into lobbying for a steady state economy, development pressure everywhere would have ceased, and habitat would be safe everywhere.”  Tom Butler is right, “there is no way to prove or disprove this opinion,” but I would offer that history tells us that preservation has made a remarkable difference, not only in the integrity of that which has been preserved, but also in extending a cultural ‘habit of thought’ and cultivating a wilderness ethos.

Tim Murray is correct in his sense that if we can’t stop the growth machine we are going to lose the war.  But as Tom Butler points out, what we preserve can at least provide “the seedbed of recovery for wildness to begin the long dance of evolutionary flowering again after this dark episode of human-caused extinction.”  And ending our efforts to preserve and conserve would be, as Butler also tells us, “an ethical breach with our fellow members of the biotic community.”   We stand a much better chance of winning the war by our preservation and conservation efforts, by retaining something of the pulse of the wild places on earth.  In the shadow of these places we continue to cultivate an awareness of limits and can at least measure the extent of our loss.  In a world where the when-to- stop rule is vague, these are not insignificant contributions to changing our path.

I would also add that we seem to have made little headway in our economic discourse on the issue of ending growth.  I doubt very seriously this has had anything to do with the time and energy spent on conservation and preservation. In fact, it’s likely that the efforts at preservation and conservation have had a more profound influence on our thinking about the limits to economic expansion than anything else has.  Rather than target our frustration about the lack of movement on the no-growth front at the conservation movement, we might do better to analyze why so little progress has distilled from our no-growth rhetoric.

I have no doubt the historical moment has arrived where the preservation movement needs to speak out more explicitly about the problem of economic growth in an effort to save what is wild.  But it is equally important that those who speak out against economic growth bring the loss of the wild and the need for a healthy human ecology to a central and pivotal focus in their discussions of scale.  No-growth discussions about optimal scale don’t elaborate on how much of what is wild should remain wild, instead, these discussions deal in the vague world of costs and benefits and promoting development without growth. These discussions evaluate whether we’ve gone beyond an optimal scale when “the cost to all of us of displacing the Earth’s ecosystems begin to exceed the value of the extra wealth produced” or when the benefits of growth are overshadowed by the costs. Without greater clarity on the true meaning of development and optimal scale we no-growth advocates might succeed in orchestrating a perfectly domesticated steady-state world, where we are all half crazy for want of a diverse and magical external world to resonate with our genome and our psyche.

Lisi Krall is a professor of economics at the State University of New York at Cortland, a member of CASSE’s executive board, and the author of Proving Up: Domesticating Land in U.S. History.