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Can Selfishness Save the Environment?

September 13, 2000

In his September Atlantic article, "Green Surprise?", Gregg Easterbrook speculates that, if elected President, both Bush and Gore could defy the stereotypes about their respective positions on the environment and take significant steps (in unexpected directions) to promote the cause of environmental protection.
Each man's image gives him the chance to play against type with a "Nixon goes to China" initiative in which he would propose as President exactly the sorts of reforms he is now thought unlikely to pursue. Because Bush is expected to favor the fossil-fuels industry, he might be the ideal President to press for global-warming reform. And because Gore is expected to favor more rules and more bureaucracy, he might be the ideal President to seek the rationalization of environmental law that is advocated by nearly all economists and by a surprising number of environmentalists -- letting market forces and voluntary choice do the work, instead of top-heavy regulations.

Texas, Easterbrook emphasizes, is not such an ecological mess as the media often makes it out to be, nor is Bush as hostile to environmental initiatives as he is often portrayed. By the same token, though Gore's rhetoric on the environment is stridently, militantly green, his voting record on environmental initiatives has in fact been centrist and moderate. "Regardless of who wins in November," Easterbrook writes, "there will be an opening to take an important set of environmental issues off their current ideological, us-versus-them course and create a positive new dynamic. Either candidate might give us this happy surprise."
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More on the environment in The Atlantic Monthly.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Roundtable: "We're All Environmentalists Now. Right?" (September 13, 2000)
Four experts on the environment and environmental politics -- Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change; Gregg Easterbrook of The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly; Mary Gade, former director of the Illinois EPA and currently an adviser to George W. Bush; and Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature -- discuss what our environmental priorities should be at this time in history.

Though a leftward move by Bush or a rightward move by Gore on the environment would counter the prevailing expectations about each man individually, the broader notion of derailing environmental issues from an "us-versus-them course" is not new. In recent years there has been growing sentiment that environmentalism and the profit motive need not be at odds. Some say that by teaming up, environmentalists and proponents of business and industry might both go a long way toward furthering their own interests. This idea has been explored by a number of different authors in The Atlantic Monthly.

In "Can Selfishness Save the Environment?" (September 1993) Matt Ridley and Bobbi S. Low described recent research in the fields of biology and economics which suggested that the best way to address "common-pool resource problems" -- in which a resource (such as clean air) is limited, shared, and endangered by abuse or overuse -- is by appealing not to altruism, but to self-interest. Ridley and Low explained that evolutionary biologists and scholars of economic game theory have repeatedly found that when confronted with behavioral dilemmas, human beings consistently act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of the common good. In order to foster responsible stewardship of the environment, then, self-interest must be made to coincide with the good of the whole:

We will have to find a way to reward individuals for good behavior and punish them for bad. Exhorting them to self-sacrifice for the sake of "humanity" or "the earth" will not be enough.... We are merely asking governments to be more cynical about human nature. Instead of being shocked that people take such a narrow view of their interests, use the fact. Instead of trying to change human nature, go with it.
One method of influencing behavior that Low and Ridley advocated is public shaming -- enabling the general public to monitor and pass judgment on an individual or corporation's treatment of the environment. Over the past decade or so this approach has come into wider use as a result of growing numbers of mandatory-disclosure laws. In "Regulation by Shaming" (April 2000), Mary Graham took a close look at the efficacy of this approach. In many cases, she reported, such laws have had the desired effect: companies faced with having to reveal their products' ingredients to consumers have voluntarily discontinued the use of toxic materials. Graham warned, however, that mandatory public disclosure is not always the perfect answer: a company can twist the language in its disclosure reports to make hazardous processes sound harmless, or can substitute unregulated materials for those that have been explicitly banned. Furthermore, the public, not knowing how to interpret certain facts and figures, may end up unfairly vilifying a company that uses only innocuous traces of a certain toxic chemical, or that uses a processing technique that's only minimally hazardous. Mandatory disclosure laws, she emphasized, must therefore be carefully framed and executed so as to circumvent as many of these potential pitfalls as possible. Graham writes,
Mandatory disclosure has now taken its rightful place beside the power to tax and the power to frame national standards as a means of carrying out public priorities. But disclosure is no panacea. It can be costly or ineffective. Requirements should be approached with care. They are just as difficult to craft -- and enforce -- as any other government mandate.
In "A Good Climate for Investment" (June 1998), Ross Gelbspan aimed to promote environmentalist ends through an appeal to self-interest by arguing that the United States should pursue alternative-energy sources not merely for the sake of averting global warming, but because the renewable-fuels business could, in the long run, prove economically more profitable than a continued reliance on fossil fuels. "While the climate crisis contains staggering destructive potential," he wrote, "it also contains an extraordinary opportunity to expand the wealth and stability of the global economy." Adopting higher standards of energy efficiency and conservation, he argued, would create new jobs. If the United States were to take the resources it currently channels into subsidies for the coal and fossil-fuel industries and use them instead to spur the burgeoning renewable-energy-source industry, a worldwide economic boom could result: "In a very few years, the renewables industry could eclipse high technology as potentially the most powerful engine of growth in the global economy."

William McDonough and Michael Braungart, a designer and a chemical engineer, took the argument for a convergence of environmentalism and business interests several steps further in "The NEXT Industrial Revolution" (October 1998), in which they argued that industrial processes can and should be engineered to function almost as biological processes themselves. "Our concept of eco-effectiveness," they explained, "leads to human industry that is regenerative rather than depletive." As an example, the authors described a "compostable upholstery fabric" that they had designed for a company called Design Tex. "When removed from the frame after the chair's useful life and tossed onto the ground to mingle with the sun, water, and hungry microorganisms, both the fabric and its trimmings would decompose naturally." The manufacturing process was so wholesome that a government test showed that "the water coming out of the factory was as clean as the water going in. The manufacturing process itself was filtering the water." This would benefit businesses by lowering cleanup and manufacturing costs, and the environment by reducing or eliminating chemical waste.

To some, the notion of George W. Bush promoting an environmentalist agenda or of Al Gore giving the market a greater role seems farfetched. But in the context of the increasing convergence between environmental and business interests, such scenarios seem more feasible and perhaps, after all, not so surprising.

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