Ever since humanity began large-scale industry, business folks have been duking it out with nature lovers.
It would be convenient to entirely blame Pruitt and President Trump for attempting to gut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But this present crisis, where the EPA is getting eviscerated, where decades of good work by our top environmental agency is getting attacked by the Trump administration, is but a dramatic point along a continuum of our collective compliancy towards our life support system.
For most of humanity’s existence, we have fought for our place in our environment among dangerous predators and hostile climates. Some time ago, our numbers grew and our ability to dominate and even subdue nature allowed our species to thrive. We discovered how to exploit the bounties of our environment and didn’t think much about replacing or compensating important components (think, forests) because it didn’t even occur to us until centuries ago that our resources were finite.
Several hundred years ago, many naturalists and thinkers began warning humanity that the way we were treating our environment was causing problems. Serious water-polluting, soil-decimating, and other large-scale problems became so bad that communities and even civilizations perished. The push for more land was driven in part because good agricultural regions were used up by bad farming practices. We over-hunted, over-fished, and developed beyond our environment’s ability to recuperate from our abuse. We ignored the warnings of those—Thoreau, Muir, Humboldt, Marsh, and many others--whose message was to step more lightly on our planet’s bounty. They were not against growth; they were against wasteful and destructive practices that were destroying the potential of our natural resources.
After a long history of treating our environment as an infinite and magical spring of resources (as an externality), we shouldn’t be surprised when, in this latest and most horrific expression of environmental pushback, Trump says "the EPA’s regulators are putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands.” (from What President Trump’s New Order Means for Clean Water, February 28, 2018, Time)
We should realize that this misguided harangue is but the most recent manifestation of a long-held attitude towards our environment from which humanity has not entirely freed itself. We’ve been treating our life support system badly for a long time.
Shifting costs and degradation of our natural resources to tax payers
Trump’s clumsy attempts to revive old unsustainable business practices by gutting the EPA is really a throwback to how humanity used to conduct business by shifting costs and degradation of our natural resources to taxpayers. This is where business gets to use and pollute the commons—our water, land, and air—and shift the financial burden of their cleanup to the public. Meanwhile, the public suffers immeasurably in the form of bad health and in many cases, death. Too many business owners believe that it is the environmental regulations, not the loss of a healthy environment, which is causing their problems. So the EPA becomes a scapegoat for businesses unwilling to shift to sustainable practices.
Framing environmental concerns as ‘us vs. them’ is not sustainable. It never has been. In actuality, there haven’t been winners and losers in environmental fights between polluters and environmentalists. Victories have been a mirage, where polluters win the battles and we all lose the war. What has happened is a ratcheting up of environmental degradation. We are now at a place where 7 billion people are eking out an existence as we warm up the planet and extinct animal and plant species around the world on par with the other five great extinctions. This observation isn’t new and many, many businesses have come to recognize their responsibility in keeping our environment healthy. For quite a while now, responsible business have adopted sustainable business practices that are becoming standard business practices around the world—not merely as environmentally sound, but also financially profitable.
Why we need a healthy EPA
The EPA has many successes under its belt including the cleanup of thousands of industry-caused Brownfields, not to mention the countless times where the rules and the very existence of the EPA has prevented catastrophic environmental abuse. This environmental regulatory agency hasn’t led to the demise of businesses. Quite the opposite. Businesses need a level and stable playing field from which to operate. Think of the reintroduction of wolves in Yellow Stone National Park where the behavior of the elk and other animals changed dramatically when wolves were reintroduced into that ecosystem. Trees grew back and even the course of the rivers changed because elk and other herbivores couldn’t stand around all day chewing up every single plant with wolves around. Ecosystems thrive when the regulators are present.
If we again let free market fundamentalism rule, we will get the world as it was before the EPA—a very polluted environment. But things will be much worse because Climate Change is accelerating and amplifying all our other environmental issues.
Why We Need the EPA Let’s not forget what America looked like before we had the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Our rivers caught on fire, our air was full of smog, and it stank (literally). “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions,” said Richard Nixon, the founder of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in his 1970 State of the Union speech. If only. While there was clearly a time when support for environmental regulations transcended politics, the GOP’s broad support for EPA antagonist and Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the agency he so maligns tells us that day has passed. (February 14, 2017) NRDC [more on Environmental Health in our area]
Focusing on just a single ecosystem, Lake Erie, demonstrates how gutting the EPA will be catastrophic. Everyone, including businesses and farmers who will not be able to thrive in a failing environment, should be encouraging Trump and the EPA to keep up their pivotal role in addressing Climate Change and all the complicated consequences coming with that.
Great Lakes Scientist says, “If We Lose The EPA, We Lose Lake Erie” At the 8th Binational Meeting of the Lake Erie Millennium Network, 125 scientists gathered at the University of Windsor in Ontario to hear experts weigh-in on the health of the southernmost, warmest and shallowest of the Great Lakes. They presented research on everything from climate change, water quality, phosphorous, agricultural run-off, cynobacteria (blue-green algae), hypoxia (deficiency in oxygen), cladophora (green algae) to ice, invasive species, sediment concentrations, and much, much more. Lake Erie is the smallest of the Great Lakes by volume, and yet it has the highest population living along it’s shorelines, which makes it more vulnerable to pollution and many other problems than the rest of the Great Lakes. (February 24, 2017) Great Lakes Now [more on Climate Change and Water Quality and Great Lakes in our area]
In our desire for progress (a Star Trekian utopia perhaps) some of us forget that our visions for humanity’s future are not necessarily inevitable. There are secondary consequences to development—pollution, the breakdown of our ecosystems, and Climate Change—that can end the best of dreams. In order to ratchet up the likelihood that ours will be a bright future, we must always be mindful of our environmental health. This will not include demolishing every hard-won environmental regulation we have achieved.