Essays for Earth Day
Guest Essay by Ben Ross
In a world where so much power is concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few, it’s always tempting to pin the blame for whatever goes wrong on the moral failings of the powerful. Earth Day, coming up this Sunday, offers a useful reminder that the problem—as leftists used to say—is not bad people, but a bad system. The first Earth Day was made necessary forty-two years ago not by the polluters’ evil intentions, but by a political philosophy that was as sincerely held as it was destructive. That ideology has returned today, and it threatens to wreak environmental damage on a scale even greater than half a century ago.
Industry Leaders: The chemical industry was led, for the most part, by men who wanted to protect the air they breathed and the water they drank. There were, to be sure, business leaders—among them manufacturers of lead, asbestos, and cigarettes—who consciously profited from disease and suffering. But their influence was not decisive. What stymied the effort to control chemical pollution in the half-century before Earth Day, as I wrote about in The Polluters, was the industry’s political beliefs. A deep-seated hostility to government interference in the conduct of business led it to fiercely resist government regulation of its pollution.
Opposing regulation: Lammot du Pont, whose firm then dominated the chemical business, told his executives in 1938 to give air and water pollution the same attention as fire safety. This was a clear and strong directive at DuPont, a company that had grown up making explosives. But at the same time the du Ponts were financing the American Liberty League, the center of far-right opposition to the New Deal. Their conviction that government had no right to tell businesses what to do inspired uncompromising opposition to federal control of water pollution. They won that battle in 1940, when the Senate killed a House-passed bill requiring federal licenses for new pollution sources.
Du Pont’s division managers were judged by their ability to earn profits and conquer new markets. In a marketplace where competitors were free to cut corners, this gave them every incentive to join the race to the bottom.
Recent times: The legislation of the 1970s, propelled by a wave of activism that peaked on Earth Day, brought federal pollution controls into being at last. But since then progress has been slow and uneven. And today the ideology of the Liberty League has come back, dominating the House of Representatives and a major political party.
The entire earth is now at risk from new pollutants—drugs, hormones, globe-warming gases—whose effects are more subtle than the poisons of the 1930s and 1960s but no less alarming. For these dangers to be brought under control, a central lesson of the first Earth Day must be relearned. The greatest threat to our environment does not come from intentional misdeeds, but from the unthinking hatred of government that has come to pervade our political discourse.
Get the Book: First, for readers who want to get a detailed historical description of the chemical industry and its impact on the environment, public policy and science, I highly recommend The Polluters, by Ben Ross and Steve Amter. This book is based on meticulous research as well as the authors’ long earned insights as environmental scientists. I found the sections on the attempts of the chemical industry to manipulate the science on the toxicity of chemicals especially compelling. Nor is the book simply history; it provides valuable lessons about today’s efforts by industry to obliterate the regulatory role of government.
Unthinking? The essay by Ross ends with the following: “The greatest threat to our environment does not come from intentional misdeeds, but from the unthinking hatred of government that has come to pervade our political discourse.” I am not going to weigh in on the subject of “intentional misdeeds.” However, I want to dig a bit deeper on what Ross calls the “unthinking hatred of government.” In my view the leaders of Big Energy, Big Finance and Big Chem et al. don’t really hate government. They just want a more corporate-friendly government — one that will continue to provide support, i.e. bailouts, “free trade” agreements (that have destroyed American jobs), but one that will view environmental destruction with a “nod and a wink” (fracking a good example). To accomplish their goal they (e.g. Koch Brothers, Rove, Paul Ryan) have helped to create a very loud and effective anti-government discourse that Ross describes.
The “Thousand Friends of Corporate America” know exactly what they’re up to. These folks use the budget deficit as an excuse to cut everything that is good for the of Americans including education, safety nets, Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, desperately needed infrastructure projects, and the like. Yet they want to keep all of the tax loopholes and subsidies in place. Nor do they mind a tax system which generously provides a 15% tax rate on the dividends of the wealthy while workers pay a rate that is twice as high. Nor do the same forces mind abolishing or the rights of workers to bargain collectively (ala GOP Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker). Government of the corporations, for the corporations and by the corporations is what they are after.
Finally, Kochs, Roves and Norquists while ensuring that government doesn’t work very well, exploit public frustration with government to render it even less effective.
There is however an “unthinking” part. Those who extract the wealth of resources for their own benefit seem not be think much about the effects actions on the good earth and its denizens.
Join the dialogue: We invite your comments.