Debunking the False Dichotomy
By MARTHA MARKS
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Martha gave this speech to the Dallas Sierra Club on October 8, 2003.
This is just the second time that I’ve been invited to give a speech in Texas, which means it’s a special occasion for me. I really like Texas. I lived in your state a couple of times as a child, so now—every time I come back—the visit dredges up old memories for me, including a few that one might accurately describe as “environmental memories.”
You see, as an Army brat of eight, I lived at Fort Hood in Killeen. My most vivid environmental memory from Fort Hood is of accidentally spraying a garden hose at the foundation of our military prefab housing unit and watching in horror as scores of spiders, scorpions and tarantulas scurried out, desperately seeking shelter from the flood I had created. Memory tells me that I didn’t sleep very well for quite some time after that.
Only slightly lower on my list of environmental memories from that year is running around with my third-grade classmates in the desert just outside our school playground trying to catch Horned Toads, or what we in our innocence called Horny Toads. It wasn’t until some fifteen years later, when I was teaching at an all-male Chicago high school and for some reason told that story to a few of my students, that I realized “Horny Toads” probably wasn’t a term I wanted to keep on using!
A few years after that Fort Hood experience, when my father retired from the Army, we moved to Linden, in the Piney Woods region just east of here. Linden-Kildare High School was my first civilian school, and it left me with a different set of environmental memories. I could spend my whole time tonight talking just about that, but I won’t. Someday, however, I may write a book about my Army-brat-turned-new-kid-in-East-Texas-town culture shock.
So, please believe me when I say it’s like coming home to be back in Texas this week.
I’ve given a lot of thought to what I want to say to you tonight. There are so many issues to explore that it’s hard to pick just one or two. I take pride in making sure that all my talks are different—and good enough to post on Republicans for Environmental Protection’s web site, and I also try to make a good call as to what any given audience might like to hear. But that doesn’t mean that one group might not be interested in what I had to say to some other group. So if you’d like to read what I said to other people in other places—or if you’re just curious about REP in general—please take a look at our web site: rep.org.
For example, back in the spring of 2002, I spoke to the Sustainable Dallas conference on the topic of Is Sprawl a Conservative Concern?
A year ago, at the River Alliance of Wisconsin, my title was River Activists are Patriots! In that one, I talked about rivers as a force in American life and how individual activists can and must play a vital role in protecting them.
And just a couple of weeks ago, at a series of meetings set up by the Western North Carolina Alliance, my topic was Conservatively Speaking. In that speech, I talked about Five Great Conservative Principles and the philosophy that led REP to begin using—and ultimately to trademark—our slogan, Conservation is Conservative. I also expounded a bit in that speech about what I see as the muddling of the terms liberal and conservative. Those words don’t seem to convey much meaning anymore, but they do provide a convenient—if wholly inaccurate—tool for demagogues like Rush Limbaugh to pigeonhole people and shout down the opposition.
Tonight, I’m not going to talk about rivers or conservative principles.
Instead, I’m going to take a whack at the “economy versus environment” debate that seems destined to rage forever in America’s legislative halls and on our airwaves.
It’s a malignant issue based on a false dichotomy that needs to be debunked.
I’m sure you’ve all run up against it some time or other. Maybe you’ve had a hard time responding to it. Well, I can’t offer you a silver bullet, but I can provide some sources of information that should prove useful next time you find yourselves trying to debunk the false dichotomy.
Before I get into that, however, I want to acknowledge the outstanding work that one of REP’s own members has done on this particular subject… and many more like it.
Professor John R. E. Bliese Ph.D. is the author of a book called The Greening of Conservative America. I recommend this book to all of you, no matter what your political persuasion, because it will give you rock-solid arguments to use with conservative office-holders, talk-show hosts, editorial boards, and your not-so-environmentally-aware friends. We at REP owe a debt of gratitude to John Bliese for adding scholarly documentation to our gut-level belief that conservatives should be both conservationists and environmentalists.
To date, we have published three original essays by John Bliese in our Green Elephant newsletter—including one from the summer of 1999 that gave me a wealth of raw material for my talk tonight.
That essay is called “The Great ‘Environment Versus Economy’ Myth,” and it is still available on our web site, rep.org, along with a bibliography containing all the sources I’ll mention tonight. And on our web site you’ll also find two other Green Elephant articles that I’m going to quote from: “Facts and Myths about Global Warming” and “Conservative Principles and the Environment.”
Last Friday, in preparation for my trip here this week, I was interviewed for an hour on Dallas’ NPR station, KERA. After some introductory discussion, host Marla Crockett opened the phone lines up to callers. The very first one was a guy who launched into his version of the tired old “environmentalists-are-out-to-destroy-our-American-way-of-life” rant. You know the kind of thing I mean: a simplistic diatribe on complicated issues, with polarizing rhetoric. I tucked the memory of that man’s rant into the back of my mind with the thought that… yes, that false dichotomy is exactly what I want to talk about next Wednesday night in Dallas.
So here I am, eager to expose the erroneous choices offered by those who would have us believe it’s “the environment versus the economy” or “jobs versus owls.”
In truth, as I will document in a bit… we are not dealing with an either/or situation. We’re dealing with a both/and situation. Not only can we have both a healthy environment and a healthy economy… we must have both if the United States and the world as a whole are to survive and prosper in this new century.
But first…what exactly is the great anti-environmental myth that Rush Limbaugh and others have foisted on the American people? As John Bliese paraphrases it…
“We can’t afford any more environmental protection, because it will hurt the economy.”
Study after study has disproven this claim, yet the myth persists. I heard a prominent California politician say almost those exact words last weekend, just in time for yesterday’s recall election. The voters rejected him, maybe because they didn’t believe statements like that. Instead, they elected Arnold Schwarzenegger, who shows promising signs of becoming our kind of pro-environment, pro-conservation Republican.
Governor-elect Schwarzenegger was certainly right not to come out with that sort of inaccurate, polarizing either/or arguments, because they are just not true! Not in California, not here in Dallas, and not anywhere else either. So the big question is: How do we debunk that false dichotomy?
Well, first of all, some bad news…
It was probably a lot easier to debunk the false dichotomy back in the ‘90s, when the economy was racing along and dot.com millionaires were popping up like weeds around the country. Most folks weren’t worried about the economy back then. They weren’t afraid of losing their jobs.
But things are different now, as you know. What just happened in California is the best example I can think of. People are under stress and terribly worried about the future, and they’re looking for scapegoats. An unpopular governor was one easy target. Environmental regulations that are hard to understand and easy to demagogue are another.
Rush Limbaugh and others of his ilk can tap into a greater wellspring of economic fear right now than they did in the ‘90s—and you have to admit… they were quite good at it even then. So first off, let’s face the fact that fending off the anti-environmental demagogues in this depressed economy is going to be even tougher than it was just a few years ago. It’s not impossible, but we do have to arm ourselves with the facts if we hope to counter the rants of the anti-environmentalists who dominate the airwaves and the political scene these days.
Fortunately for our side, we have John Bliese.
John Bliese’s research shows that no matter where you look—in America or Europe or Asia, in other developed countries, U.S. states, small towns or large cities—the facts are clear and consistent. As he wrote in the Summer 1999 Green Elephant:
“Environmental protection normally has no negative impact on the economy overall, and sometimes it has a positive effect.”
John Bliese points to two independent studies that evaluated all fifty U.S. states on environmental and economic factors.
The first report, published in 1992 by MIT Professor Stephen Meyer, rated the fifty states separately on their performance over the previous twenty years. In one study, he analyzed the strictness of their environmental protection policies. Then, separately, he analyzed their rates of economic growth—job production, new construction projects, and the like. Professor Meyer concluded:
“States with stronger environmental policies consistently out-performed the weaker environmental states on all the economic measures.”
Now, it might be easy to dismiss the work of one professor in Massachusetts as somehow skewed in favor of environmental protection, if it weren’t for the fact that a similar—but completely independent—study conducted by the Institute for Southern Studies in North Carolina produced virtually the same results. The authors of that report concluded:
“States with the best environmental records also offer the best job opportunities and climate for long-term economic development. The best stewards of the environment also offer workaday citizens the best opportunity for prosperity.”
It might be easy to dismiss the findings of even a second study like that except for the fact that they match up with poll results and basic common sense.
Despite the current bad economy and the relentless ranting of talk show hosts, polls show that the American people still do get the connection between strong environmental laws and a high quality of life. Pollsters across the political spectrum have documented that voters want meaningful environmental protection… especially the educated and affluent “swing” voters who can make or break a politician’s career.
Even Frank Luntz—the GOP pollster and message-meister who created the 1994 “Contract with America” and whose mission in life is to keep Republicans in control of governments at all levels—warned just last spring that the environment is the greatest Achilles’ heel for the Republican Party… and especially for George W. Bush. That’s why the administration goes to some trouble to wrap its throw-back policies in feel-good language like “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests.”
But even if we didn’t have any polling evidence to back us up, all we would need to do is look around to notice that most corporate executives and skilled workers simply will not move their families to a place that doesn’t offer a clean, healthy environment. Likewise, you don’t find many entrepreneurs deliberately seeking polluted places in which to establish new businesses—unless they are going into the pollution-cleanup business. A state that wants to attract quality corporations and the high-paying jobs they bring is just plain smart to protect its air and water and natural areas.
Given a choice, the American people clearly prefer to live where the air and water are clean and protected natural areas are close by. That’s why in every part of the country, builders place a higher value on residential lots next to the wetland or forest they probably were forced by local ordinances to preserve… and why people gladly pay a higher price to live next to those areas.
The only people I know of who will opt to live in heavily-polluted areas are those who because of poverty or poor job skills have no real choice.
So, the state or local government that wants to grow more prosperous by attracting new companies and skilled, educated workers will, if it’s smart, establish and enforce high standards of environmental protection. Only a foolish, short-sighted government would make a conscious decision to relax its environmental standards. And that applies to the federal government as well.
Okay, enough of my editorial comment on that subject. Back to the well-documented studies that John Bliese turned up…
In 1996, a research group in Paris called the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published an in-depth report on the U.S. economy as part of a wider study of the economies of nations worldwide. It noted that our country was then spending about 2% of its gross domestic product on environmental protection. Not surprisingly, that figure was higher than in most other countries, but the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded:
“There is no evidence that the American economy has been adversely affected as a whole by strong environmental protection policies.”
Obviously, in 1996 that certainly was the case. Even Rush Limbaugh would have been hard pressed that year to say that environmental protection was harming the economy. Frankly, I suspect that even today he would find it difficult to make the argument that our economy is in the doldrums because we’re spending too much on clean air and water. He might try to make that argument, but only a brain-dead ditto-head would believe it!
John Bliese also points to the work of the World Resources Institute, which
“did a comprehensive industry-by-industry analysis of an enormous amount of data to answer the question: ‘Jobs, competitiveness, and environmental regulation: What are the real issues?’” Economist Robert Repetto, who did the study, found “no evidence that superior environmental performance puts firms at a market disadvantage or adversely affects market performance.”
And Repetto reported another interesting result:
“Money spent on environmental protection creates as many jobs as it would if invested elsewhere.”
Not coincidentally… our Spring 2003 Green Elephant contained an article about this very thing. In “Pollution Prevention: Fact, Fiction and Foresight,” Dr. John Bartlitt, another REP member and scholar, pointed out that money invested in environmental cleanup doesn’t just fall off the face of the earth. It goes back into the same economy from whence it came, producing new industries, growth and jobs.
Likewise, there are just as many jobs to be created by manufacturing energy-efficient automobiles or household appliances as by manufacturing dirty, inefficient ones. Producing environmentally-sound products, as opposed to environmentally-damaging ones, does no harm whatsoever to the nation’s overall job market.
And, in fact, a researcher at the Harvard Business School has documented that new environmental regulations lead companies to improve their product design and production processes…thereby cutting wasteful pollution and saving them lots of money.
Even without regulations, the desire to improve environmental conditions can lead to new companies and jobs. In the Spring 2002 issue of The Green Elephant, we published an article about “Green Gazelles”—a clever name for the increasing number of small, independent companies that are carving out niches for themselves by finding ways to do things better for the environment. That article was written for us by Byron Kennard, who runs the Center for Small Business and the Environment in Washington, D.C.
I happen to be a “fellow” at the Center for Small Business and the Environment, so I get frequent updates on all the new “Green Gazelles” that Byron turns up. Some of them are really amazing! For example, there’s a company called “Idle Aire,” which came into existence after a long-distance truck driver complained to his brother-in-law, an inventor, about the fact that in winter or summer he had to leave his engine running all night while he’s sleeping, just to stay warm or cool. The creative brother-in-law spotted an opportunity, came up with a solution and started a company that now installs his Idle Aire device at truck stops across the country. The trucker pays a fee, pulls his rig up under the overhead device, plugs into its heating or air conditioning unit, turns off his engine, and sleeps comfortably for far less money than it would cost him to burn diesel all night. The added environmental benefit is that it’s both cleaner and quieter for him, other truckers, and the homeowners who happen to live nearby.
Byron Kennard and the Center for Small Business and the Environment are doing a great job of spotting small, creative companies like Idle Aire and making sure that government officials and other decision-makers learn about them too. In effect, Byron’s work in 2002 and 2003 has reinforced the truth of what economist Robert Repetto wrote back in 1995:
“Money spent on environmental protection creates as many jobs as it would if invested elsewhere.”
Before leaving that subject, I’d like to comment on something that John Bliese wrote in 1999 in reference to Repetto’s 1995 report. Bliese wrote:
“Higher environmental standards in developed countries have not lowered their international competitiveness. There is no evidence of ‘industrial flight’ to third-world countries with few environmental regulations. (In fact, international investment in heavily-regulated industries goes mostly to other advanced countries, which all have strict standards!) Likewise with international trade patterns: there is ‘no indication that countries with more stringent standards have suffered a loss of international competitiveness.’”
I’m afraid that nowadays the anti-enviro talk-show ranters might take issue with that statement. No doubt they would point gleefully to the loss of jobs that have occurred during the last few years, offering California as a case in point to reinforce their claim that environmental regulations do cost jobs.
My response would be that the jobs that have been lost, in many cases due to NAFTA—remember that “giant sucking sound” that Ross Perot talked about?—were lost primarily because companies went looking for lower-wage employees. It’s the high cost of labor, added to the collapse of so many dot.coms, and the tanking of our stock market that have cost so many Americans their jobs.
Environmental regulations had nothing to do with any of this, except as predicted by anti-NAFTA activists, who warned that our hard-won environmental protections would be undercut by that trade agreement.
Sadly, that prophecy seems to be coming true as the Bush administration seeks scapegoats for the current job losses and reacts by rolling back the Clean Air Act, the roadless rule for our national forests, wetlands protections, and a host of other environmental laws and rules. Moves like that can backfire if people catch on to what’s going on, which is where we vocal environmental activists come in. It’s up to us to arm ourselves with the facts and make sure that the public knows what’s happening.
If you look at the industries that most of those lost jobs were in, they weren’t the “heavily regulated industries” that Bob Repetto was talking about. They were mostly low-skill, non-regulated industries, like the textile and garment industries, where cheap labor in China or Honduras can do the job just as well as Americans can. There haven’t been so many jobs lost in high-skilled, technical fields, because countries like China and Honduras don’t have as many workers able to do those jobs. But if a company should want to export those jobs to another country, it would almost certainly be to another developed country like Germany, France, or Ireland, where the environmental standards are as tough—or tougher—as our own.
Coincidentally, just this morning on CNN, I heard a report that the Levi-Strauss Company—as all-American an operation as you can think of—has announced plans to close all its U.S. factories and from now on will be outsourcing all its production to other countries. They won’t even own those factories. They’ll just subcontract the work.
It’s curious, isn’t it, that this big loss of jobs has come at a time when the US government is putting increasingly less emphasis on environmental protection? George W. Bush probably blames environmental regulations for much of the job loss that has occurred on his watch. He apparently believes that weakening those regulations will pull us out of that slump. But there is absolutely no evidence to back that up. All Bush is doing by loosening environmental protection laws is promoting a “race to the bottom.” Are we going to end up in the same category as Mexico and Honduras…with dirty air and water to go along with our reduced standard of living? Obviously, not if people like you and me have anything to say about it!
That’s why we absolutely must bone up on the reports that have proven that environmental protection doesn’t lead to a loss of jobs or economic growth. Armed with the facts, we stand a much better chance of making ourselves heard. The trick is to find those studies, steep ourselves in the facts they present, and then do everything in our power to get the word out. It’s hard to compete with the bully pulpits that Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush have at their disposal, but we can seek out other venues to tell the truth and promote a higher standard of discourse. That’s one reason why I travel around the country, speaking to groups like this wherever I can. And it’s one reason why REP America publishes as many op-eds as we can around the country. We’re intent on getting our “Conservation is Conservative” message out in every way we can.
My most important message to you tonight is: Don’t despair! Keep on fighting! Our cause is still right. Our arguments are still sound.
Even if the times aren’t great, the American people still do care about the condition of the world they’re raising their kids in. And the case studies that researchers like John Bliese, John Bartlitt and Byron Kennard have offered for our use are still valid and very powerful.
I want to end this talk as I began it… with a few personal comments.
People often ask me if I think President Bush is going to win re-election or not. My answer is: I don’t know. But I remind them that no administration lasts forever. Even the most successful ones move on, leaving others to follow through or change the policies they began.
The Bush administration may or may not be in trouble today. And if it happens that President Bush doesn’t win re-election, it won’t be specifically because of his anti-environmental policies, but because of other issues: Iraq, the economy, and so on.
I like to compare today’s Republican Party with an enormous ship. It’s steaming along at full speed, with a charismatic captain and more money than any other political organization in the history of the world. It doesn’t see any reason to change course. We at REP America are trying to turn it in a different direction on environmental issues, and that’s going to be a long, hard struggle. What’s needed is for that giant ship called the GOP to hit an iceberg that is specifically identified as “the environment.” Only then will it start correcting its course and head off in the direction we want it to go. In a sense, our movement to build a green GOP constituency is a way of creating an iceberg identified as the environment. We aren’t trying to sink the ship, but we do want to send it off in a different direction.
You and I all know that Texas—the home state of George W. Bush—is a tough place to be an environmental advocate. But somebody has to do it. So please take heart, keep fighting and do whatever you can to debunk the false “economy versus environment” dichotomy. The American people are on our side in this argument, even if the current administration is not.
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you this evening. I will be glad to take your questions.
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