Beware a Texan wielding a chainsaw

Strategic Ignorance
February 4, 2005

At a recent dinner in Paris, two distinguished American academics opened the conversation by (a) apologising for the Bush Administration and (b) asking how Europeans viewed the re-election of George W. Bush as President. The general European response appears to be one of puzzlement about the new isolationism and the rise of the "moral Right".

Most people will be aware that President Bush has carried this isolationism into the climate change arena by refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Not so many will be aware that his Administration has also attempted to reverse or dismantle significant parts of US environmental legislation.

A 13-page appendix in Carl Pope and Paul Rauber's book lists the record since 2001. It is a catalogue of delays to new legislation, legal challenges to existing rules, expressions of concern over the environmental regulatory cost burden to industry, special exemptions from allegedly harmful legislation and relaxations of protective measures.

To be sure, neither author is, or would claim to be, an independent commentator. Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club and Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra magazine. The criticisms they cite are not all of equal importance - all governments respond to pressure groups and special interests, and some "give and take" is to be expected. But it is hard to deny the general trend. Somehow, those who argue that industry should not be corporately responsible for its environmental and social impacts have won over those who argue it should be.

Notions of environmental legislation interfering with American "competitiveness" figure prominently despite the fact that fiscal deficits are doing far more harm than environmental cost burdens ever could, and despite the evidence that these cost burdens are minimal and are, in any event, conducive to better health and hence higher labour productivity.

So why have Americans allowed anti-environmental paranoia to envelop them? It will not do to say that Bush is paying back his financiers and oil buddies for their electoral support.

Pope and Rauber believe the explanation is much deeper. It is ideological.

It is about showing strength and Texan machismo. Environmentalism is for the weak and overdependent. If the environment is important, it must pay for itself; neither the state nor the taxpayers should bear the costs.

Perhaps over-dramatically, Pope and Rauber refer to the confrontation of values as "the Texas Chainsaw Massacre versus Bambi". For them it is about the dismantling of the century-long tradition of natural heritage held in public trust by the administration of the day. They do not argue that it is Bush himself who has caused the problem. Rather, he has fallen in with a bad crowd of the Radical Right whose political ascendancy was, and is, based on simplistic but appealing notions of moral righteousness, winning, being tough and a dominant respect for what they see as the true source of wealth - business. The rest follows. The United Nations, foreign countries'

opinions, government itself are either enemies of the good or simply irrelevant.

Pope and Rauber provide a readable, if partial, history of the development of state environmentalism in the US from the early 1900s to its alleged demise today. The story is littered with names, many of which will be unfamiliar to European readers. But personalities clearly matter. Pope and Rauber refer to the main ones as "the wrecking crew".

Some of the personal criticism seems over-egged. John Graham's work at Harvard University was always open to professional scrutiny as an academic, a check on integrity that exists in few other professions. As administrator at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, responsible for cost-benefit analysis and risk appraisal of regulations, he is nonetheless listed as one of the wreckers and is later given special treatment as the "Wizard of Risk".

The impression given is that Pope and Rauber belong to the old-fashioned band of environmentalists who do not believe costs matter. They support the so-called no-cost doctrine, which, perversely for them, has been upheld by several senior court decisions on major environmental legislation during the Bush regime. Arguing that costs do matter, and that some balance between costs and benefits should be sought, is not the same as arguing that environmental regulation should be minimised.

In the same vein, not understanding the economics of discounting or the measurement of the money value of risk (which they refer to as a "ghoulish exercise") should not be confused with demonstrating that the sums, or even the methodology, are wrong.

If society were intent on minimising health risks, it would allocate vastly greater sums to health protection than it does. Whatever sum is spent implies a money value for risk. The only issue is whether one carries out this exercise implicitly or explicitly.

Pope and Rauber go too far and stray into areas they do not properly understand. Nonetheless, this is a lively, polemical and occasionally funny book that has a serious and unnerving message. Just as we all thought we were on a path of environmental improvement in terms of political persuasion and awareness, along comes the Bush Administration with a moral crusade against the environment. That should worry us all.

It is a pity that Pope and Rauber choose to muddy the waters by classifying that entire crusade as wrong. Some of it is far more widely shared and far more non-partisan than they recognise.

David Pearce is emeritus professor of economics, University College London.

Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress

Author - Carl Pope and Paul Rauber Sierra
Publisher - Club Books Distributed by University of California Press
Pages - 303
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 1 57805 109 6

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