Green Growth: Five Principles for a Better Environment

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

On Earthday 1998, with the new millennium approaching it is time to build a bridge to a better environment in the 21st century. Only by adopting a set of principles that avoids the mistakes and builds on the successes of past policies can we ensure a cleaner, healthier environment in the future.

First, the federal government should adopt an environmental Hippocratic oath: "Do No Harm." The federal government is often the worst polluter and violator of environmental laws, though it exempts itself from environmental policies it imposes on the private sector.

Many government programs encourage or directly cause environmental harm. For example, Dr. Wendy Gramm and Susan Dudley using Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ozone standards adopted in 1997 alone could result in 7,000 deaths per year when fully implemented.

Also, government-run or subsidized hurricane and flood insurance encourages the overdevelopment of sensitive beaches, wetlands and floodplains.

Second, government programs must recognize that a healthy environment depends upon a healthy economy. The worst environmental problems are found in impoverished countries with stagnant economies. For example, in poverty-stricken Haiti:

  • Less than 30 percent of the population outside of the nation's capital has access to safe drinking water.
  • As a result, deadly forms of water-related diseases and parasitic infestations are widespread and Haiti has the highest infant and toddler mortality rates in the America's (86 and 140 deaths per 1000 live births).

Though China now has a thriving economy, its citizens and the environment are still suffering from decades socialist, command-and-control economic policies. For example:

  • Only 40 percent of urban dwellers and less than 7 percent of rural Chinese have access to safe drinking water.
  • China's state-run factories dump 36 billion tons of untreated waste into the nation's waters each year making more than a quarter of the freshwater lakes and rivers unsuitable even for irrigation.
  • In addition, China's air quality is the worst in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • In the industrial city of Benxi, smog is so bad that visibility is limited to 40 to 50 yards six months a year.

It will take years of economic prosperity before countries like Haiti and China can once again boast healthy environments. But wealth created in a growing economy makes possible the technological innovations necessary for environmental improvements, and citizens in wealthier societies are healthier and spend more on environmental quality. For example, while GNP rose approximately 65 percent and per capita disposable personal income rose from $13,404 to $18,136 between 1975 and 1993, levels of all major air pollutants decreased. Most strikingly:

  • Sulfur Dioxide levels decreased 50.3 percent;
  • Carbon Monoxide levels decreased 60.5 percent; and
  • Lead decreased an impressive 97.1 percent.

During the same time period water quality showed a similar improvement. For example:

  • the release of organic wastes has been reduced 46 percent;
  • and the release of toxic metals has been reduced by 98 percent.

As companies in competitive market economies seek to become more efficient, and they reduce the amount of pollution produced.

Third, if states implement environmental education programs, the programs should focus on sound science and an understanding of the opportunity costs inherent in environmental laws and programs.

In contrast, in current environmental education programs advocacy often passes for education. For example, in Wisconsin all prospective teachers must complete a course in environmental education. A recent study of environmental education course materials used in the Wisconsin universities to train teachers found that only two of 12 courses met the standards of North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) for fairness and scientific accuracy. Five of the eight universities used biased materials which failed the NAAEE's standards for objectivity.

Environmental education programs should helped students learn how to think, not what to think.

Finally, since most environmental problems are local in cause and effect, they call for local solutions.Yet, in recent years federal environmental agencies have ignored constitutional constraints and become enmeshed in intrastate environmental matters. For example, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), is widely considered the most powerful environmental law in the nation. Despite all of its power, the ESA has not worked well.

After spending billions of dollars, of the 1,524 species that have been listed as either endangered or threatened during the ESA's more than 20 years of existence, only 27 had been delisted by the end of 1996. Seven of the 27 had become extinct, eight others had been wrongly listed. No species have recovered due to the ESA.

When not hampered by "one-size-fits-all" centralized federal legislation, local efforts at environmental improvement succeed where federal efforts have failed. In just 2 years of existence, Pennsylvania's land recycling program has clean-up 100 of the 300 contaminated sites entered in the program. In contrast, in 16 years only 10 of the 103 federal Superfund sites in Pennsylvania have been certified as ready for reuse. This is just one example of the often superior ability of the states to handle environmental problems.

Everyone wants clean air and water. All people want to pass on healthy ecosystems to future generations. Our best hope for continued environmental improvement is to ensure that citizens have the wealth necessary to maintain environmental progress, their children are armed with the knowledge necessary respond to future environmental challenges, and communities are allowed the flexibility to respond to environmental problems in the least costly, timely manner.