Environmental Decisions Lack Ethnic Justice - Gore
Vice President-elect wants communities to have legal power to block some projects
THE following are excerpts from a recent interview with Vice President-elect Al Gore Jr., a leading environmentalist.
How would you characterize recent trends in the environmental movement?
There has been an explosion of activity and concern at the grass-roots level. This is the fastest-growing political movement in the country and in the world. Many people who previously gave little thought to the environment are now recognizing it as among their core concerns.
How have the national, mainline environmental groups based in Washington and New York been adjusting and changing their strategies and tactics?
There has been a lot more emphasis on the local dimensions of the issues and a much greater recognition of the desirability of market-based solutions, much more political realism and sophistication, much more involvement in the details of the political process. All over the country some of our best and most effective volunteers and precinct captains [in the Clinton-Gore campaign] were environmentalists. They were extremely determined, very effective, very committed, and very savvy.
You mentioned market-based solutions.
The feasibility of some such solutions depend upon the continued growth of political consensus in the country to support such measures, and I think that's now occurring. But it's a dynamic process and we're not there yet.
One of the criticisms lodged against the mainline environmental groups is lack of minority representation within its membership and staff; and also concern about pollution faced by people in cities, and minorities there especially.
What I would call the environmental justice movement has really gained tremendous momentum just in the past two years. The United Church of Christ several years ago published a landmark study ... and they have followed that up with other reports, including one just three months ago on the enforcement of environmental laws and [variation in] the stiffness of penalties depending upon the ethnicity of the victim. And John Lewis [(D) of Georgia] in the House of Representatives and I in the Senate both introd uced and co-sponsored the Environmental Justice Act last year, which has been the focus of a great deal of activity by civil rights groups in alliance with environmental groups.
What would this Act do?
It empowers the citizens of a local community victimized by high concentration of environmental threats with the ability to intervene in ongoing proceedings - siting decisions and so forth - and it empowers them with the ability to get scientific help in analyzing the nature of the threat posed.... Where there is a large concentration of pollution sources in a particular neighborhood, this will make it possible to look at the cumulative threat to the air and the water. In other words, it takes the point of view of the people instead of the smokestack. This really needs to be passed. It also represents a bridge between the civil-rights movement and the environmental movement, and there's a lot of traffic going in both directions across that bridge.
A counter movement has evolved in the last couple of years. Were you in a position to observe that in the Senate? Where do you think it springs from, and why?
It's a combination of two groups of people. First of all, individuals who have grievances against the application of environmental laws and regulations that have effected their own property or their investments, especially in areas of the western United States where a very high percentage of the land is owned by the Federal Government. [Also,] commercial interests that want to make use of public resources in ways that the vast majority of the American people would find unacceptable. And the latter group
has provided a lot of money which has served to create the impression that the former group is much larger than it really is.... There are some legitimate grievances, no question.
There are corporations that seem to be making a true effort to inject an environmental sense in the way they do business. What's the size and the scope of such things?
Some of the most thoughtful leaders in American business are evangelizing, are really proselytizing, let me put it that way, the value of the environmental and productivity connection.
I draw an analogy to the quality revolution that began in the late '60s and early '70s.... Most American businesses were assuming that the level of quality prevailing at the time ... could not be significantly improved except at the expense of productivity, profit, and jobs.
The Japanese, by contrast, listened to W. Edwards Demming and a number of other American experts who found it difficult to get an audience here.
[The problem in the United States was that] we were on top of
the world and why did we need to change?
The Japanese went back and reexamined the entire industrial process from beginning to end and introduced new levels of product quality at every step along the way.... American business eventually responded by adopting these same techniques and now we have caught up for the most part pretty aggressively.
Well, now the same thing is happening all over again because many American businesses ... [have said] you've got to choose between jobs and the environment.
Well, once again the Japanese, this time joined by the Germans and thankfully by a number of American corporations, are challenging the conventional wisdom and proving that if you go back and reexamine the entire process from start to finish and reintroduce environmental efficiencies at every step along the way, you can simultaneously improve environmental efficiency and profit....
If you're hunting for bear and you go into the woods and you don't see the bear, you have to look for the bear's tracks.... The most salient marker, the easier tracks to follow if you're hunting inefficiency, is pollution....
The solution will be in the redesign of the interface between subsystems, or the solution will be found in a brand new creative approach to solving a problem that has always been addressed the same old way for a hundred years.
Wouldn't it have been easier for a company to take the requisite steps for quality and thereby reap the benefits, compared to the pollution question?
No, it's not necessarily true at all. Let me give you an example. In Nashville, Northern Telecom makes circuit boards that they cleaned with chloroflurocarbons. They asked ... well, how do they get dirty in the first place? And when they searched for the answer to that question, they found a much better way to keep the boards clean. So, they made a moral commitment to be the first company in their industry to completely eliminate the use of chlorofluorocarbons for such cleaning. And they didn't know how they were going to do it, but ... they beat the deadline by nine years....
They asked specifically why do we need to use these chlorofluorocarbons, and the answer was to clean the circuit boards. [The solution was to ask] ... well, how do they get dirty in the first place?
And now every year they save four times as much money as they spent to make the conversion....
I mean they save millions of dollars every year and put out a product with much less pollution and significantly higher quality. They ... have now decided to take a similar approach to a whole range of other questions.
They're looking at complete product recyclability. They're looking at full product life cycles for everything that they make. And consciously using the drive for environmental efficiency as a business tool to discover higher levels of productivity.
What kind of public response have you gotten to your book, `Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit.'?
Oh, the response has been amazing, really, and extremely gratifying. The number of teachers who are now using it in their classrooms has been especially gratifying, and the number of young people who are sharing it with friends. It has really been a very moving experience for me.