Personal rights and interests don't take enough into account to safeguard what we hold in common. That takes government, and the EPA.
This may come as a shock: The late 19th century conservation movement was largely a Republican creation, with Theodore Roosevelt a leader. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created in 1970 with associated laws such as the Clean Water (1970) and Clean Air (1972) acts, came about under Republican President Richard M. Nixon. Both presidents had bipartisan support.
But times have changed.
Let me state two things up front. One. This will not be a partisan rant. Neither major party owns “Green.” I have worked with Green Republicans, Green Democrats, Green Independents, and Green Greens. I do find attacks on the EPA by some Republican leaders distressing and short-sighted. But I find Democratic leaders’ generally weak defense of the EPA distressing and short-sighted also.
Two. I’m a wanna-be tree-hugging, Earth-loving eco-freak. I don’t always succeed, but that’s the goal. In my opinion, the 1970s’ environmental laws were the decade’s most important legislation. The country’s leadership finally grew up, recognized that the Earth’s resources are finite, and legislated responsibility for our actions. Lawmakers during those years saw that the federal government needed a lead agency to protect our shared resources. They gave us the EPA. Whatever its imperfections, it is a great gift.
If you grew up before the 1970s, you probably remember air pollution in our cities and river valleys as industries and cars spewed noxious gases into the atmosphere. You probably remember dead and dying rivers and lakes choked with sewage, deadly chemicals, and other industrial debris. Things are much better now.
EPA, historically disliked, has become an object of outright hatred in powerful quarters. Its opponents make the same objections that were raised a century ago: “Pollution control costs too much and cuts into my profits.” The premise now includes global competition: “We can’t compete internationally if EPA makes unreasonable demands that keep us from hiring.” This is a clash of microeconomics (my land, my business) with intermediate and macro economics (our land, our business), a conflict that’s inflicting collateral damage on our commonwealth. Even wildlife protection too often is viewed as completely unreasonable. So much for bald eagles and honeybees.
Here’s the rub. Somebody has to pay for pollution, either directly (for clean up at the site) or indirectly (for diseases and illnesses that impair quality of life; pollution has even brought extinction to some wildlife species).
Let’s go back to early childhood, folks: If you made a mess you cleaned it up, at your own expense. Why isn’t this logic applied to adult behavior?
Much resistance to the EPA comes from rural areas, where landowners dedicated to their property rights, regardless of damage to others’ rights, scream bloody murder about EPA protection of wetlands and wildlife. Many farmers are, or try to be, stewards of the soil and water on their property. This is important. You can’t produce food if you abuse the soil or if it washes away. (The debate about fertilizers and pesticides, as well as genetically modified plants and animals raises a whole host of issues I won’t go into here.)
My observation, after driving across thousands of miles of rural areas in the past 35 years, is that most farmers do try to take care of their soil, but this does not mean they are stewards of the land. There is a distinction:
• Stewards of the soil are protecting their personal interests and the future of their farming operations. Their goal is to feed the world, itself a noble aim with personal financial underpinnings.
• Stewards of the land are concerned not only about their farms but about the ecological future of their communities. Raising food is central. But these farmers also attend to water quality and plant and animal ecosystems, including forests, grasslands, and wetlands.
As I puzzle this out at some humble level of intellectual curiosity, I know I have never posed the farmers’ problem with the soil-land stewardship distinction. Others probably have. I hope I haven’t unconsciously stolen the idea from anyone, thinking particularly of Wendell Berry or Wes Jackson. Anyway, it’s new to me, a product of frustration with both political leaders and some farmers.
Attacks on the EPA, which I recently heard at the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture field hearing in Galesburg, Illinois, offended me. Some folks voiced the opinion that “we all want clean air and water.” True, except for the unspoken “but” at the end of the sentence as speakers went on to bemoan “excess government intervention” that interferes with “free markets” and individuals’ business decisions. Some people – for reasons that continue to puzzle me – refuse to consider the environmental impacts of their activity, impacts that affect the global commonwealth of soil, water, and air.
Soon after the hearings, I read comments on a website from rural planners that asked the EPA to be more moderate. This suggestion is unreal. No way, I thought. Here, I take my stand.
We need a strong EPA. In fact, we need a doggedly persistent EPA. Even more, we need government that is totally dedicated to protecting our common natural heritage for future generations, whatever the cost in short-run profits. In the name of commonwealth, we need the highest level of environmentally responsible farms and other businesses possible. This is farming and business in the public interest.
Out of respect for the Constitution, we need fair and open due process to redress disputes and correct the agency when it does make mistakes. We need government programs that provide even more support for conservation practices that protect not only soil and water but the whole ecological system, including air, plants and wildlife.
Farmers, almost all of whom are dedicated to protecting their soil, argue they cannot afford land stewardship on their own in today’s brutally complex and competitive world. This is where the EPA and other agencies such as USDA should and must be present to protect the public interest with carrots and sticks. Simplify the paperwork? Sure. Cut regulations? No.
Free-marketers won’t agree. Sorry. Economic history shows us that unregulated markets fail miserably at environmental protection, which is a public, not private good. The individual profit motive is just too powerful, and it’s all too easy to let someone else pay.
Just as the Lorax speaks for the trees, someone needs to speak for the EPA.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.