THOUGHTS OF A CONSERVATIVE ENVIRONMENTALIST, PART 2
By GORDON DURNIL, former Chairman of the Indiana Republican Party, former Republican-appointed commissioner on the International Joint Commission, and a REP member in Indianas
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Originally published in the spring 1998 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter
I was asked an interesting question on National Public Radio a while back: How do we get from science to policy? Which led to other questions, such as: How do we influence the thought process of decision makers? All are good questions, with answers that seem obvious to me.
Scientists Must Come Forward
To get from science to policy, the science must be communicated. The message itself isn’t good enough in this society; good messengers are required. Scientists tend not to be that. They rarely communicate with colleagues in differing disciplines.
Well, I’m sorry, that’s no longer good enough. Scientists need to come forward, not only with what they know as technicians, but with what they’ve concluded as people with a great deal of experience.
As a decision maker, I want to hear all sides of an issue, weigh the evidence, and then make the decision. Those who would have me decide in their favor should be focused on an identifiable goal. They should be able to clearly enunciate what it is they want to accomplish. Environmentalists tend to be of a different mind. We’re a diverse group, so diverse it often appears we don’t have a clear goal. Too often we give the perception that we believe all human actions are bad, which is a losing proposition for our concerns. Some of us can get as excited about healthy trees as we do about healthy humans; we don’t see the conflict, but that can be confusing for human decision makers.
We Must Ask Serious Questions
Another barrier to success is the prevailing thought that a safe level of exposure exists for all substances. Our environmental protection agencies are founded on such thoughts, even though toxic discharge standards are quite often the result of compromise, and not always realistic standards to assure human safety.
Rachel’s #510 (*see note at end of article) says, “our laws typically require a regulatory agency to develop ‘safe’ standards for toxic chemicals. Science cannot determine ‘safe’ levels of toxins, so government agencies, environmental lobbyists, and the polluters all respond identically, pretending that ‘safe’ levels of toxics have been determined and that only ‘good science’ has been employed in the process.”
We need to keep reminding ourselves that toxic means poison, capable of killing. In the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the U.S. and Canada agreed on the definition of a toxic substance as one “which can cause death, disease, behavioral abnormalities, cancer, genetic mutations, physiological or reproductive malfunctions or physical deformities.”
Still, for some reason, we tend to underplay the seriousness of the word toxic. So we need to ask some serious questions, such as just what level of poison should parents encourage their children to ingest? Is any level acceptable? The standard governmental response to such questions is usually designed to keep the populace in a benign state about poisons which can’t be seen, smelled or tasted. Instead of encouraging public debate about such questions, governments usually assure us everything is okay. Then they set out to create additional ineffective regulations.
Just where does the current weight of evidence fall in assessing the success or failure of regulating the most serious environmental problems out of existence? There have been numerous successes in ratcheting down the loadings of some of the persistent toxic substances, but we have eliminated virtually none. The governments of the U.S. and Canada report that somewhere between 60,000 and 200,000 chemicals are being discharged into the Great Lakes; no one knows for sure what, or how much, or what happens when those substances interact with each other.
Only a few of those chemicals have been pretested for adverse health effects prior to discharge, because when it comes to the introduction of new chemicals, the U.S. government seems to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. At the same time, in the jurisdictions around the Great Lakes, some 60,000 environmental regulations and laws are in effect to be complied with by industry. Many of those regulations conflict with others. Few have effectively prevented the discharge of persistent toxics. Many of those regulations have unduly harassed businesses, resulting in higher prices and fewer jobs, but not resulting in genuine environmental protection.
We Must Develop a Republican Environmental Agenda
Why should conservatives take a lead on environmental issues? And what should we do? We should develop a Republican agenda for the environment. We could set priorities dealing with the most serious problems first, not the current approach of trying to solve all problems at once and solving few. We could deal with the problems of toxics at the front end of their use, instead of all the permitting, regulating and harassing we do now at the tail end of the process. Prevention is a conservative answer to conservative problems. Relying on regulation presumes all things can be managed, even though we’ve clearly learned that some substances cannot be.
So, where’s the potential for common ground? First, let me state I’m quite concerned about the adverse effects of persistent toxic substances on human health. And as a politician, I know I’m much more likely to get decision makers interested in environmental concerns about human health than I am about wildlife or plant health.
Such concerns as decreased learning ability, immune suppression, reproductive deficiencies, neurological problems, cancer and other effects all have some science indicating adverse effects from environmental exposures to dioxins, furans, PCBs, DDT, lead, mercury, etc. The science may not be 100% certain, but it’s sure enough for the exercise of precaution. It’s enough to promote cooperation and honest debate between governments, industry, environmentalists and academics in the pursuit of real science relative to the potential for harm to humans.
Logically, if we find some of the most onerous substances are doing what they are suspected to be doing to humans, then we should create an orderly process to get rid of those onerous substances. Let’s not continue on, trying to manage the unmanageable through regulation.
We’ve given regulation an extensive test run over the past several decades, and we’ve learned that regulation alone will never get us to our goal of environmental success. We now spend a lot of resources and suffer great harassment in the challenges of remediation, but we still don’t set environmental priorities for the most serious problems. We don’t conduct serious human health studies, nor do we ever quite get around to prevention as the true pathway to environmental protection.
A reasonable person must ask: why spend huge amounts of money to remediate what we’re still discharging? When it comes to adverse health effects, regulation has been the old-line prescription for achieving environmental protection for our nation, but the patient is still ill. The prescription hasn’t worked. Prevention should be the answer.
We Must Show Leadership
Now would be a great time for my conservative colleagues to take a leadership role and bring some logic to the pathway toward environmental protection.
In the 1996 national platform, Republicans said: “Our goal is to continue the progress we have made to achieve a cleaner, safer, healthier environment for all Americans; and to pass on to our children and grandchildren a better environment than we have today.” So at least we all share the same goal.
We can cut the costs and reduce the intrusiveness of EPA, but not with simplistic across-the-board cuts where we throw out the good with the bad. Let’s keep the good and throw out the bad.
We should restructure our approach with an environmental law as proposed by Bill Ruckelshaus, instead of the one-problem-one-law approach via the current divisions of air, water and so on. Ruckelshaus advocates a single, unified law that is effective efficient, fair, and reflects the essential democratic values of our society.
Such an approach could cut costs, reduce regulation and more effectively protect the environment. We could create a system that comes to agreement on science, a system that deals with the most important problems first, a system capable of honest communications with the public, a system that decides if something is too bad to do, and a system that doesn’t look at business as Public Enemy Number One.
It would also be a system not reliant on the intellectually dishonest premise that unless we can prove with 100% certainly that something is bad, we declare it totally good.
We Must Be Pragmatic
There is also a pragmatic reason to create a Republican agenda for the environment: the gender gap.
We Republicans scare a lot of mothers when we casually dismiss concerns about pesticides in children’s food or water, or when we don’t express concern about old lead sites causing children to have diminished learning capacities. We lose votes when we talk of cost/benefit analysis in relation to adverse health effects in our children.
We Republicans often take a lead in solving some of those problems, but we don’t communicate our successes to the public. A Republican agenda for the environment could start with a serious search for the facts about adverse human health effects from environmental exposures; we could stop relying so much on lobbyist-generated facts.
In one post-election 1996 article, Senator John McCain asks, “Have Republicans abandoned their roots as the party of Teddy Roosevelt, who maintained that government’s most important task, with the exception of national security, is to leave posterity a land in better condition than they received it?” He says the answer is no, “but if we are to restore the people’s trust and retain the privilege of serving as the majority party, we better start proving it.”
We Must Stop Hiding Our Heads in the Sand
One conservative writer recently called the GOP’s avoidance of the environmental debate one of the strangest phenomena of recent decades.
It is strange, but I was a Republican campaign manager and party chairman who did just that. Our lobbyist and contributor friends told us the issue wasn’t real, and with no evidence required, we believed them. When told other issues were real, such as crime, education or the economy, we sought statistics and facts. When told environmental problems were not real, we simply believed.
Well, the problem is real, but too many of us still don’t believe. The love I have for my grandchildren convinces me that the state of our environment must be at the forefront of our intellectual curiosity.
Change is in order. We have a big job ahead of us.
*Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis MD 21403. Back issues are available. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with the single word help in the message. To subscribe, send e-mail to: email@example.com with the single word subscribe in the message. It’s free!
ORIGINAL 1998 CREDIT: Gordon K. Durnil, the author of The Making of a Conservative Environmentalist (1995, Indiana University Press) and Is America Beyond Reform? (1997, Sligo Press), is much in demand as a speaker. In August, 1997, he chaired a session called “Republicans and the Environment” at the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference in Indianapolis. He invited REP President Martha Marks to be one of the speakers at that session.
Mr. Durnil served as Indiana Republican State Chairman for eight years. He has been a delegate to every Republican National Convention since 1968 and was on the Executive Committee of the Republican National Committee during the Reagan presidency. A founder of Young Americans for Freedom in 1961, he subsequently raised more funds for the Indiana Republican Party and GOP candidates than anyone else in Hoosier history. President Bush appointed him to serve as U.S. Chairman of the International Joint Commission for water quality in the Great Lakes and all other boundary-crossing waterways, a position he held for four and a half years. During that time, he gained international recognition for leadership in developing new ideas regarding the use of persistent toxic substances and for finding ways to update environmental protection concepts. He is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Business and the Indiana University School of Law.
REP is proud to claim Mr. Durnil as a member. The two articles that we published in The Green Elephant come from recent speeches at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Wayne Township Republican Club. We thank him for letting us condense them.