New Environmentalism

Studies | Environment

No. 201
Wednesday, January 01, 1997
by Lynn Scarlett

Introduction: The Need for Change

Environmentalism is at a crossroads. Thirty years of public policy have produced some spectacular successes. For example:

  • Airborne lead emissions declined by almost 90 percent during the 1980s.1
  • In Los Angeles, the nation's "dirtiest" air basin, stage one smog alerts declined from more than 120 in 1977 to 13 in 1995. 2
  • Phosphorus levels, a major indicator of water pollution, were 40 to 70 percent lower in the Great Lakes in the early 1990s than in the 1970s. 3

But environmental policies also have sparked conflict, and they carry a steep and rising price tag. Since the early 1980s, the U.S. has poured more than $22 billion into Superfund site cleanup, yet cleanup at only one-fourth of the high-priority hazardous waste sites has been completed.4 Harvard economists Peter Wilcoxen and Dale Jorgenson estimate that environmental expenditures reduced the long-run gross national product by 2.59 percent during a 10-year period - an amount equal to about $1,600 per year for every U.S. household.5

Sometimes important problems remain unaddressed while trivial problems receive major policy focus. Consider the following evidence:

  • Scholars at the Harvard Risk Assessment project have estimated that we could save 60,000 additional lives every year by taking money away from the regulation of trivial health risks and applying it to more substantial health problems.6
  • An internal survey of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's employees concluded that the agency spends money on programs that are politically popular and devotes much less effort to those that might effect real, significant environmental improvements.7
  • Numerous studies have shown that government programs sometimes pursue environmental goals inefficiently, wasting money that could be spent to achieve other environmental and nonenvironmental goals.8

These problems point to a need for reform. But reform does not mean abandonment of environmental goals.9 Reform means a change for the better. We must find ways to incorporate environmental values more efficiently, fairly and effectively into the decisions of individuals, firms, associations and governments.

This study argues that real reform cannot occur until it is coupled with and driven by a new vision of environmental progress.

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