Environmental Politics

By Buell, John | The Humanist, September-October 1994 | Go to article overview

Environmental Politics


Buell, John, The Humanist


When Bill Clinton and Al Gore ran for office in 1992, they promised a new solution to the growing problem of environmental degradation. They wanted to bring more economic rationality into environmental regulation by placing a tax on pollutants discharged into the environment. Such an approach, they argued, would give business an incentive to find the most costeffective ways to handle pollutants.

In the abstract, one cannot quarrel with the goal of marrying economics and ecology, for surely any approach to environmental regulation cannot be politically viable unless it also helps human beings meet pressing economic needs. But as is the case in other policy areas, there are good reasons to question whether simply tinkering at the margin with our current corporate economy will give us either a sound environment or a productive and just economy.

The assumptions of the Clinton-Gore program become highly problematic when we examine the intellectual and political history which led to its development. This task has been undertaken by several authors in an excellent current anthology, Toxic Struggles: The Theory and Practice of Environmental Justice, edited by Richard Hofrichter.

At the theoretical level, the proposal for taxing noxious discharges has a distinguished if problematical pedigree. Mary Mellor points to the influence of biologist Garret Hardin. In a famous essay in the 1960s, "Tragedy of the Commons," Hardin argued that common ownership of such resources as pastureland for grazing led to overexploitation of the resource as each herder felt the need to get the most out of it before others did the same. As Mellor correctly points out, however, Hardin's argument has already assumed that a kind of narrowly acquisitive behavior is natural and not itself in need of explanation. Where regular social relations and common support systems exist, individuals may well care about the preservation of the resources not only for themselves but for friends, neighbors, and even future generations. Part of their "self-interest" and even personal identity may lie in the existence of such intergenerational communities.

Furthermore, if human beings really are as narrowly self-interested as Hardin assumes, why would they respect the newly carved property boundaries he advocates? Presumably, only the fear of the sheriff will work, and legal systems themselves cost money.

And finally, when one considers the new pollution-taxation proposals, one must not neglect the historical forces which have led to this push. James O'Connor and Michael Faber point out that the early environmental strategies were concerned more with control than prevention. …

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