Pollution Control and Indulgences

By , Eugene J. McCarthy is a former Democratic senator from Minnesota.

IT was certain to come - the application of the principle of ``indulgences'' to pollution control. The indulgence concept is the essence of a provision in the Clean Air Act that Congress passed a couple of weeks ago. Under the terms of the act, a cap will be put on total sulfur dioxide emissions allowed to all United States utilities to combat acid rain. Each utility will then be given a share of the national allowed pollution based on 1985 records. Any utility that does not pollute up to its allowed amount will be permitted to sell the unused part to one that is polluting above its quota, or that wishes to do so. Alternatively, a utility can save emission credits against future need, and in the meantime carry them as an asset, in effect accomplishing what the Washington Post has described as ``monetizing dirt.''

There have been intimations of actions comparable to this, in such things as allowing taxpayers to sell their losses, to sell unused investment credits and depletion allowances, or to receive payments under the negative income tax concept. But this is the first clear instance of financially rewarding persons or companies for not having done what was judged to be socially and legally undesirable.

The potential for extension of this practice raises interesting possibilities. One can conceive of a society in which every person or business is allowed a level of irresponsible social or economic activity, with the concomitant possibility of being rewarded, either directly or indirectly by society, for good performance by being allowed to sell or transfer the unused portion of the quota of antisocial or anti-environmental action. Thus, if one were allowed, say, 20 points of traffic violations, and had used none or only a portion of his quota, he or she might sell the unused points or transfer them to someone who had exceeded the limit.

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The special treatment of first offenders under the law might be sold or transferred to second offenders. Thus a margin of corruption, of pollution, of unsocial behavior could be established for the whole society, with good behavior capitalized and possibly marketed within the limits allowed. This would be consistent with the medieval religious practice of giving or selling indulgences; the practice operated on the principle that some persons were better than they needed to be in order to escape temporal or purgatorial punishments, whereas many others, sinners, fell short.

Under the terms of the granting of indulgences, credits built up by the good could be transferred to those who had fallen short or anticipated falling short. The transfer could be gratuitous, or in answer to prayers and petitions, or for money. The anticipation of credits or forgiveness for sin moved William of Acquitaine to establish the monastery of Cluny in the 12th century to have the monks pray continuously for his salvation while he went about his work of war and other activities.

The specific provision in the Clean Air Act allows the areo-jet industry in California to buy from control districts pollution rights in excess of established standards and then allow the districts to use the money to subsidize or pay for pollution reduction somewhere else, by some other person or company.

The sale of indulgences did not serve the church well - nor, in the long run, did it discourage sinners.

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