How to Be Clean and Cost-Effective

Article excerpt

Since the celebration of the first "Earth Day" some 25 years ago, the drive to improve the nation's air, water and land has come to occupy a secure place at or near the top of our national political agenda. Faced with mounting stress on the environment resulting from decades of burgeoning economic growth, we, as a society, amended many bad habits and adopted environmentalism as the ultimate "motherhood" issue. Staunch support for a cleaner environment has most people, the quintessence of "politically correct" thought.

In point of fact, though, no one in his right mind favors a polluted environment. Today, while everyone recognizes conceptually the obligation society has to protect the environment, people from all walks of life, including many thoughtful of pivotal questions underlying the movement, such as: "How clean is clean?" "What will a perfectly pristine environment cost?" and "What are the tradeoffs and alternatives available to us?"

During this period of environmental transition, business often found itself on the defensive. Though it created wealth, paid and expanded dividends, employed workers, produced products and increased our standard of living, business was looked upon by society as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Professional environmentalists and politicians captured the moral high ground by demanding legislation to make the world a better place. Costs were considered to be largely irrelevant.

Regrettably, the cautious adherence of business to its traditional role--that of a generator of wealth and a market-driven opponent of waste and inefficiency--was often interpreted as recalcitrance or obstinacy both by government and an overzealous environmental movement. Even as progress was made, the business community did not satisfactorily tell its story. But attitudes are changing. A national recession forced us to focus on economic realities. So have two decades of experience, with an endless flow of costly regulations, a steep learning curve in fledgling environmental science, and increasing costs to implement programs that chase diminishing returns.

Today, business faces a challenge beyond environmental compliance. It must help society attain reasonable environmental objectives without sabotaging its productive capacity, inhibiting its economic growth, or mortgaging its future. We can have a clean environment on a cost-effective basis, but only if society avoids the mistakes we have made too often in recent years.


Environmental protection seems to spark an emotional response absent from most other public policy issues. The result seems to have been more than a few policies or actions of questionable value. In some instances, actual damage has been done. One reason: Environmental science was a new field. Because of that, the recommendations of environmentalists tended to be accepted unequivocally by the public. Solutions to real and perceived environmental problems--and their ramifications--often are deemed too complex for nonspecialists to understand.

But prodded by current economic pressures, the American public is showing signs of skepticism about some programs and their environmental aspects:

* Concerned about the effect of acid rain on the nation's forests and lakes, Congress ordered a massive $500 million, 10-year scientific study of the problem. The study concluded that acid rain was not a serious problem, and that what minor damage it did cause could be remedied by simple, inexpensive methods. The environmental lobby and Congress blithely ignored the study. In fact, neither waited for the results in pushing for and crafting acid rain legislation that is costing billions to no effect. The investigative reports of television's 60 Minutes have documented this story.

* Alarm bells were sounded years ago about the dangers of asbestos. A nations wide program of asbestos removal costing billions of dollars annually was begun. …