Slugs and Dinosaurs: Why Some Industries Drag Their Feet

By Pope, Carl | Sierra, September-October 1997 | Go to article overview

Slugs and Dinosaurs: Why Some Industries Drag Their Feet


Pope, Carl, Sierra


Trying to predict what President Bill Clinton will do on any given topic is a risky business. In June, for example, at a fund-raiser for Senator Barbara Boxer (D-calif.), the president told me the scientific evidence for the EPA's proposed clean-air standards was not as clear-cut as environmentalists and the agency were arguing. I thought he was undecided on the issue.

But on June 25 Clinton endorsed the standards, which dramatically reduce allowable levels of soot and smog in the air we breathe. Although he had been intensely lobbied by the Sierra Club, physicians, and Vice President Gore, his decision came as a surprise, especially to the coalition assembled against it by the National Association of Manufacturers. Even though Clinton had based his re-election campaign on protecting children's health, many did not expect him to actually make good on that promise.

At the same San Francisco fund-raiser, the president made an eloquent plea for strong action on global warming. "We must set firm standards and timetables," he said. "We must fundamentally remake America's transportation sector. Detroit's either got to stop making cars that burn oil, or start making very different cars that burn far less oil."

But, speaking in New York on the fifth anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit the day after his clean-air announcement, Clinton stiffed the rest of the developed world: he refused to commit the United States to firm timetables and the major technological changes it will take to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

There is more at work here than Clinton's inconsistency. As the United States blunders toward a green, sustainable economy, some decisions will be harder to make than others, especially as the potential losers in that new economy do everything they can to put off their day of reckoning.

American industries fall into three broad categories: Learners, Sluggards, and Dinosaurs. Learner industries have no intrinsic reason to fear a rapid transition to higher environmental standards, and can be coaxed along by social pressure and economic incentives. Among such industries are finance, electronics and computers, appliances, publishing and communications, specialty chemicals, biotech, and apparel. The loudly touted success of the 3M Corporation at saving money by treating pollution as economic "waste" shows an industry learning that it has nothing to fear and much to gain from sustainable practices. High-tech companies realize that the pollution of Silicon Valley drinking water, while enormously expensive to clean up, would have been trivially cheap to prevent. These are the industries that speak the language of sustainable development, and with whom Clinton and Gore love to make common ground.

Sluggards are those industries that know better but find it hard to change. They have made good money plundering natural resources and making wasteful products, like the giant sport utility vehicles now lumbering out of Detroit. …

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