Air, water, land, and America at its finest

From an environmental perspective, the past decade reflects the American people and their system of government at their very finest. Faced with the increasingly likely prospect of leaving their children a legacy of silent springs, the American people called for action, and their government responded with imagination and creativity.

In a single sustained burst of legislation, almost without precedent in our history, machinery to reverse a century of environmental degradation was devised , perfected and set into motion. NEPA [National Environment Policy Act], signed on the first day of the last decade, was quickly followed by important amendments to the Clean Air Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Resources Recovery Act, and establishment of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. Building on this foundation, Congress rapidly added the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Ocean Dumping Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, a strengthened Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Noise Control Act, and the Quiet Communities Act.

I have no doubt whatsoever that future generations of Americans will look back upon this decade of environmental renaissance the way we look back upon similar creative bursts of legislation during the 1930s, for the New Deal, and 1960s for civil rights: as among democracy's finest hours.

I think it is very important that we have continued to make progress in the past few years, when energy and economic issues have competed mightily for public attention.

Despite these pressures, we have maintained the commitment to a clean, healthy environment for all of our citizens, and the administration's legislative program now before Congress -- which includes such vital measures as the Alaska Lands Bill, the "superfund" bill to pay for the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites, a new plan for nuclear waste management, proposals to increase funding for energy conservation and the development of solar and other renewable energy sources, and reform of federal water resource development -- indicates a continuing environmental priority. It is important that Congress move forward with these measures.

Another positive dimension involves the actions of individuals and thousands of private groups and businesses which have contributed so greatly to protecting the environment.

Those who argue against continuing the environmental momentum of the 1970s have failed to grasp the full severity and dimensions of the environmental problems that continue to face us.

We have gained success in combatting gross threats to our air and water only to discover whole new phalanxes of subtle menaces, whose danger and obstinacy often vary in inverse proportion to their ability to be quickly and easily understood. Thus, we look upon the clarifying water and purified air with satisfaction while, stealthily, four square miles of our most productive farm land are each day consumed by concrete and asphalt and lost from agriculture. Fish are returning to waters they long ago fled, but we are finding their flesh often contains significant amounts of toxic chemicals. Sulfur dioxide pollution is now a major health problem in only a few areas, but partly because we are airmailing sulfur oxide to places far away where it falls as acid rain.

Even by standard economic measures, the inflationary impact of environmental programs is quite minor. Moreover, any realistic modification of federal environmental regulations would produce no significant reduction in the overall Consumer Price Index. If the inflationary impact of these requirements could be reduced by a fourth -- a substantial relaxation -- the CPI's increase would be restrained by less than 0.05 percent: the net effect of even draconian measures could be the difference between a 7 percent and a 7.05 percent increase in the CPI.

We have been told and told, and then told again, that environmental regulation is merely one aspect of an already over-regulated society, a society forced to divert increasingly scarce resources and managerial talent from productive and innovative ends. Indeed, some major corporations have undertaken rather large campaigns to convince the American people that government regulation is out of control.

In response, I would simply point out that, in light of the continuing revelations of corporate neglect or worse, much of the current protestation against government regulation rings awfully hollow. Virtually every environmental regulation, for example, has its genesis in some problem, like Love Canal or Kepone or PCBs, that threatened the public and finally brought a legitimate public demand for government action. Regulation is not going to go away until the problems do.

When US Steel decides to close 16 plants in eight states, this action is not portrayed as what is bound to happen from time to time in a truly competitive system, or that economic history is largely the pageant of firms that decline and firms that advance, or that disinvestment in the uneconomic is just as important to healthy growth as investment in the economic. Instead, the experience of US Steel is perverted into becoming a horrible example of what happens when government regulation requires environmental protection, or permits foreign competition. What is not stated is that Japanese steel, the major competitor, is produced under environmental protection restrictions that are more stringent than our own, or that trade barriers, high or low, are forms of government regulation.

If the critics really want to reduce the burden of government regulation, they must take steps to eliminate the situations that create the need for regulation. That, it seems to me, is the enlightened response to a changing society. And those companies that are increasingly taking this approach deserve our praise, support and thanks.

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