AMERICAN voters are increasingly demanding less federal
regulation while aggressively telling the Republican Congress they
want more environmental protection.
A democratic paradox? Not at all.
To restore and protect our air, water, soils, and birds and
other animals, we need rigorous national standards. But there is no
immutable law that says such standards must be reached through
reams of detailed, cookie-cutter instruction codes.
Instead, wouldn't it be far better to simply set a national goal
and then invite businesses and communities to reach that goal in
whatever way they choose? Not only would it be; it already is.
This "virtual regulation" approach originated in the
Netherlands, where the Dutch parliament in The Hague sets, for
example, clean-water goals through formal debate. The Environmental
Ministry then negotiates with industrial sectors, signing contracts
and setting out timetables for reaching those goals. Local
industries and communities, however, remain free to choose their
own path to clean-water compliance, whether it be source reduction,
recycling, reuse, conservation, control technology, whatever works
When I brought this approach to Washington in January 1993,
skeptics told me that, sure, "virtual regulation" might work for a
small, quiet, homogenous country like the Netherlands, but it could
never work in the brawling, sprawling, litigious hothouse of
American politics. We gave it a try anyway. Recently, some
encouraging patterns have begun to emerge.
New York's approach
In 1993 New York City was hit with a federal mandate to build
new filtration plants for water coming from its Catskill Mountain
Aqueduct. Instead of rushing into a $5 billion construction
program, the city tackled the problem at its source: pollution
originating on the rural watersheds in the Catskills. It then
worked out a deal to pay for farm- waste and waste-water treatment
facilities that the rural communities could not afford.
As a result, the federal standard was met at one-quarter the
estimated cost, with benefits for both urban and rural communities.
In short: strong protection, light regulation.
In California, the fisheries of San Francisco Bay are collapsing
from massive water diversions from the river systems that feed it.
The old regulatory approach would have been to entangle 100 cities
and irrigation districts in a federal permit process that reduces
water use across the board.
Instead, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Environmental Protection
Agency, and other federal agencies set a simple but essential goal:
the minimum amount of water that must reach the Bay to restore
salmon runs. …