PUBLIC HEALTH, CONSERVATION AND THE ENVIRONMENT - CAN THE CENTER HOLD?
It is a pleasure to be here today to talk to you who are
students, faculty and friends of the Harvard School of Public Health.
The theme of my talk tonight is political. The politics of conservation,
the politics of the environment, the politics of health. Do people and
groups interested in conservation, interested in the environment, interested
in public health, do they all need each other if the entire body politic
is to benefit from improved health of the people of this country? I think
they do. None of these groups can go it alone.
Put another way, each of you is prima facie interested
primarily in public health. Now the Environmental Protection Agency started
as a public, human health agency, and only later broadened its emphasis
to include ecological and natural systems. After all, human health depends
ultimately on the health of our natural systems, of which humanity forms
part, and on which humanity fully depends.
Protection of public health - of human health and aviodance of human risk
- is still generally seen as an obviously high priority; while protection
and preservation of the entire natural environment is a far broader and
far reaching concept and one much more controversial.
The natural environment is essentially everything that is in the worldly
envelope which supports us and in which we live. To me it is self evident
that if our natural systems are sick, our human systems will also be sick.
But the opinion makers of the moment, who seem to be mostly radio talk
show hosts, do not seem to be interested in questions of that nature.
Instant solutions and instant gratification seem to be the norm. Considerations
of ecology, of the health of our ecosystems, of the effect of land use
decisions that are improvident, the results of building on flood plains,
the results of destroying forests and meadows and wetlands - these are
not what your average Joe Six-Pack hears or reads about.
And yet the very real conservation and environmental successes of the
last 25 years since the first Earth Day have been the result of a broad
based consensus among some very disparate elements within our body politic.
Together they did manage to create a widely based political movement that
includes what one might call the practical conservationists, the more
idealistic environmentalists, the public health enthusiasts, the hunters
and the hikers, and lets not forget the NIMBYs - Not In My Back Yard!
NIMBYs tend to graduate, and quite often to become effective, committed
conservationists or environmentalists.
This broad coalition which since the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford
Pinchot has accomplished the preservation of our Nation's most beautiful
scenery; the first public health advances, the early slum clearance programs,
urban parks and the protection of our water supply - all of that was because
of the efforts of a coalition of people, activists if you will, who in
a very real sense were elitists, and who definitely believed that what
they were doing was for the common good. The hunter, the fisherman, the
scientist, the hiker, the bicyclist, they all agreed generally on what
they were trying to accomplish. They were confident of their aims and
their collective power.
But today that beautifully effective coalition has been splintered, for
a whole host of reasons. This has come about partly because of arrogance
- arrogance of the environmentalist movement, arrogance of industry, of
pressure groups, of greedy academic know-it-alls, of elitist chest-thumpers
who know better than a lot of other, more "common" folk, and of course
the arrogance of people in governments at all levels - bureaucrats as
well as politicians.
And, the success of a carefully calibrated and coordinated political effort.
Read the papers, and you can see how successful the effort has been.
For example, how many of you know anything about the "Wise Use" movement?
This is an extraordinarily effective alliance of grass-roots property-rights
activists, farmers, hunters, ranchers, hunters, loggers, motorized camping
lovers, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and of a number of industry-backed
It was originally organized by two conservative activists and direct-mail
fundraisers, who worked for a non-profit group called the "Center for
the Defense of Free Enterprise". They have raised millions over the last
eight or ten years on behalf of organizations that are fighting "environmentalists".
"We want to destroy environmentalists by taking their money and their
members", quoted the New York Times (12/19/91). They put out a "Wise Use
Agenda" of twenty-five points. I have a copy here! It is well worth reading.
Among other things, the Wise Use groups believe that publically owned
lands, including National Forests, should be made available for a full
mix of all kinds of commercial and recreational uses. Less restrictions
on private development of public lands; more overnight "classic rustic
lodges" and "campgrounds", fully accessible by wheelchair no matter how
steep or high the trail; it would seem that asphalt will spread like ink
over our forests. The Coalition includes, incidentally, the "Blue Ribbon
Coalition", organized by offroad recreation enthusiasts who like dirt
bikes, jeeps with huge wheels and snowmobiles, and want to use more of
scarce public lands for their sport. According to The New York Times,
Honda and Kawasaki have given them money.
Their Goal # 4 I find especially fascinating - and I quote:
"Passage of the Global Warming Prevention Act to convert in a systematic
manner all decaying and oxygen-using forest growth on the National Forests
into young stands of oxygen-producing carbon dioxide-absorbing trees to
help ameliorate the rate of global warming and prevent the greenhouse
Translation: cut down all old growth trees in the National Forests and
replace them by tree farms.
The Movement has organized the "Alliance for America" which fronts for
a variety of proponents. It is fascinating, but beyond my scope today,
to trace back the funding sources for these groups. Quite a bit of research
is, however, available. Look it up; you will be surprised. And then review
the effects of the legislation on "takings" just passed by the House.
At the very least, we have a new full employment for lawyers bill for
the Senate to review.
The question I am asking basically is whether or not that old coalition
can be re-created. And, if it is not, are we in for a period of backpedalling,
of environmental retrogression?
How should we interpret the November 1994 revolution? After all, the last
time the Republicans took control of Congress was in 1952, when I was
a shavetail Lieutenant on my way to Korea! Two years later, the Republicans
lost the House of Representatives.
In some senses, as a pro-choice, moderate Republican I should feel disillusioned
and disappointed. For some reason, I do not. However, while forever optimistic,
I do have to take stock of what my party may be about to do. What will
the Contract With America actually turn out to be? What will the fine
print be? Our friends in the National Resources Defense Council and other
main line environmental groups are right to be concerned. But, self-examination
is always a good thing. Why was the electorate so exercised?
One response to last November's results, which is clearly visible, is
a cowardly response. For example, right now Environmental Agencies, both
State and Federal, are back pedaling as fast as they can on a number of
different issues. President Clinton's EPA is afraid to go forward with
a Superfund Re-Authorization bill because they are afraid basically that
the liability scheme, which many industrial groups have fought bitterly,
will not survive and will be replaced by some sort of underfunded and
unpopular public works program. Say what you want about Superfund, it
at least has the virtue of forcing action by the private sector.
They are afraid to go forward with revisions for the Clean Water Act ,
because they might see a revision of the entire process for protection
of wetlands and indeed of the Safe Drinking Water Act provisions that
require filtration for water supply systems across the United States.
In the area of clean air, they have been pulling back from enforcing sanctions
on states that have failed to go ahead with their promised enhanced vehicle
inspection and maintenance programs and they have moved towards weakening
transportation conformity requirements which ensure that a highway project
will not increase air pollution. That will please the highway lobby.
My party in Congress has introduced a whole slew of bills in the House
of Representatives which would roll back parts of the Clean Air Act, including
the acid rain and the air toxics programs and indeed the House majority
whip is proposing to repeal the entire Clean Air Amendments Acts of 1990.
Never mind that those much-needed amendments were introduced and bitterly
fought for by a Republican administration.
I think it is fair to say that those who believe that the electorate voted
for a massive rollback of environmental protections are badly misreading
the results of the 1994 elections. Poll after poll indicates that people
want to have limited and responsive government at the same time that they
want to have clean air, clean water, protection from sprawl and good public
health. For the environmental movement to disregard the very strong signal
it has received to the effect that people want less government, with less
intrusion in their personal lives, and to spend less money for their governors'
pet projects, would be suicidal. These are real signals - real desires
and real drives and they are not going to be wished away by any of us,
no matter how we feel.
People want leaner government. They want less intrusive government. They
also want a cleaner environment. Don't tell them that they are trying
to have their cake and eat it too - they do not agree!
Bill Reilly, my EPA boss, told us once of a lunch he had with the late
Lee Atwater before he so sadly died. Atwater pointed out that there were
two issues of major importance to all those suburban women who voted for
Republican George Bush in 1988 - choice, and the environment! About choice,
he said, we can't do much - the President has his position, and all we
can do is throw the "big tent" over it. But, he told Reilly, you have
the environment as an issue under control. Then Atwater, the consummate
politician who liked to win elections, died. The "Council on Competitiveness"
appeared and started to bash EPA and environmental protection: Wetlands
protection was seen as a bad thing; the Endangered Species Act as a hindrance
to economic development and the counter-attack on "takings" and regulations
began. The right wing took over the Republican National Convention; the
"big tent" was shredded and George Bush lost the election. Atwater was
right. I can't believe my party would be so stupid as to let all this
happen again - but, remember 1954.
I think what has to happen now is a regrouping and a rethinking by all
of us who are interested in the protection of our environment and in the
conservation of our natural resources, our land , our air, and indeed
of our way of life.
Part of what we have to recognize is that people do not wish to change
their personal lives and their personal habits without really understanding
why they have been asked to change and then agreeing with the fact that
they need to change. People can change, yes, but they won't do it because
somebody on high says they must. Property rights, for example, are engrained
in everybody in this country from birth. Indeed the Revolution was fought
in large part for property rights principles that both Republicans and
Democrats today will espouse: that a man's home is his castle, and that
a person should be allowed to do with himself and his possessions, including
his land, what he or she wills.
The ownership of property, however, has never in English common law or
since been absolute and total. One has never been legally able to use
a piece of land in such a way as to harm one's neighbor. The laws of nuisance,
the laws prohibiting the overuse or diversion or misuse of water, all
existed before the advent of the modern environmental movement. All of
the body of public health laws and requirements that underly the panoply
of protective measures we have in place now - these are not new. All of
them had, and still enjoy massive public support. Nobody wants to drink
dirty water from his reservoir. Nobody wants to be poisoned or sickened
by pesticides from the air. Nobody indeed wants to breathe foul air or
to have their wells poisoned by toxic dumps next door.
It's easy for us to state these basic principles. It is in the carrying
out of the myriad of stupid and unnecessary requirements that have been
imposed upon us from on high that the fault lies. Government agencies
are notably ham handed and environmental agencies are no better than any
other. "Permits" are an abomination and indeed a remarkably badly chosen
word. People don't want to be permitted to do what they feel they have
a right to do, anyway.
We Americans have a propensity to tell each other what to do in all kinds
of areas that normally would be left in other parts of the civilized world
to personal preference. Prohibition of alcohol is a prime example and
I wonder if today's ban smoking efforts are not born of the same general
At the same time, while public health is a concept easier to explain,
ecology and the natural systems need defenders that make sense, all the
more particularly today. The problem that we have is that we have not
been able to explain the public health and personal risks that result
from inattention to our own environment, ecology and natural systems.
When I grew up in New York City, my mother had to clean the window sills
every day of the soot that came in from the cracks in the window. The
air was foul with coal dust. People hated it and demanded action. You
could literally see it. Today you can't. Is the danger of air pollution
gone? No, it is not gone, it is still there but the people really don't
believe it. It takes an inversion or two before people get upset about
ozone. And if the inversions don't happen, everybody is happy to continue
doing what they have been doing and certainly will not change their driving
The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments were a tremendous legislative achievement.
President Bush, in his campaign of 1988, endorsed the Amendments and said
he would push them through. His Chief of Staff, John Sununu, decided that
was a commitment the President had to honor.
Of course, the Amendments were resented. Resented by large industry groupings,
some of which have still not come to terms with the fact of the Act. One
of those industries, that seems to wish the whole thing would go away,
is the automobile industry, not to mention the loosely connected industrial
complexes that benefit from our present transportation system which is
much too heavily highway oriented. The producers of asphalt, the petroleum
industry, the concrete industry, trucking, indeed the whole complex upon
which a large part of our industrial capacity is based.
A lot of money from those sources has gone into the various think tanks
which have come up with a conservative rationale for rolling back some
of this supposedly overzealous greeness that was foisted by some sort
of elite by the country. They have been quite successful. Indeed I think
some of the environmental groups that insisted on, for example, mandating
by law the employer trip option as a solution for urban smog, overdid
it, and gave grist for their mills by prescribing a political nightmare
for a very minimal improvement in air quality.
States and localities, after all, must obviously be much better suited
to deal with geographically specific local problems and make specific
decisions on how to attain environmental standards than Federal micro-management
by a distant bureaucracy. So I would support efforts to decentralize and
to pass responsibilities down to lower levels of government, particularly
to states and localities, while on the other hand I would not support
any relaxation of the air quality standards. Attainment of those is a
public health issue. I am sure that all of you support that position.
Probably all of you support the attainment of water quality standards
as well. This nation has done remarkable things in treating its water
effluent discharges and there is very little public dissatisfaction with
what is being required, as long as the solution prescribed is not ridiculously
When you get to drinking water, however, the many localities that are
being forced to filter their systems, don't see why they have to and don't
believe in these horrible little things called giardia lambda and criptosporidia
and the like. That is because the proponents of the public health side
of that argument have been curiously quiet. However, as one who caught
giardia on a pack trip in Wyoming at 10,000 feet, I am sensitive to these
(Here discuss New York City Watershed problem.)
Another area in which environmentalists may be barking up the wrong tree,
is in their opposition to requireing risk analyses and cost benefit analyses
before regulations are promulgated by a Federal or indeed a State agency.
But there is a danger, that risks or costs may be "adjusted" as deemed
necessary. Don't cook the books! Here again the question of politics is
important. Do you remember the study produced in opposition to the Clean
Air Act Amendment proposals which showed that their costs far outweighed
any possible benefits? One curious number that stuck in my mind was $25
for the benefit of not having an asthma attack. Tell that to a sufferer!
Much of what we have been spending money on in this country is not truly
risky. But, is Politically Correct! But, do the new rules really subordinate
public health realities to cost estimates, with the latter taking precedence?
Many people, on the other hand, think that, as now written, the proposed
laws requiring risk assesments will be a prescription for gridlock and
will only allow opponents, industry, environmentalor NIMBY, to stop everything.
The law of unintended consequences.
Much of the Superfund money that has been spent over things such as Love
Canal has been spent either in litigation or to handle situations which
have caused great public unease and unhappiness and terror but which are
not, in and of themselves, that risky. The cost of what you require is
[GM Massena?--People Without Jobs Care not about the environment!]
I used to feel that if I were being shot at and criticized from all quarters
by environmentalists on the one hand and by industrial groups on the other,
I was in pretty good shape. Indeed somewhere in the center was where you
should be. I think my most contentious issue was the problem of the Hudson
River's PCBs deposited by General Electric years ago and what to do with
them - leave them there or dig them up and do something, anything, with
Looking at that mess - and mess it is! - it is well to remember that GE
did everything that it did under a permit issued by the State of New York
and that it had complied with all the requirements which were in force
at the time. GE is obviously afraid that the result of a re-assessment
that I started in 1989, under the Superfund Law, would result in its being
ordered to clean up the entire Hudson River, whatever the source of the
PCBs that are to be found in the hot spots along the river. But GE is
not owned by a bunch of malefactors. GE is owned by all of us. Its stockholders
are our pension funds, our mutual funds and GE is part of the industrial
backbone of this country. Whatever decision is made has got to be made
with that in mind, and not unfairly punitive.
I will be honest. I still do not at this point know what the correct decision
is environmentally or economically. All I know is that by the time EPA
has finished its work, it should have available the best technological
and scientific knowledge so that a rational, political decision can be
made, and that is all one can ask for in today's world.
[Detail some of PCB and GE shenanigans.]
Let's go back to ecology and natural systems. How do you make the case
against urban sprawl? How do you make it plain to the average taxpayer
that "development", especially strip development in a straight line alongside
roads (a) costs more because the infrastructure requirements are greater
along a strip than if clustered; and (b) is ultimately not sustainable
because it uses too much land, and too much water and requires too much
driving and therefore your air is no longer pure?
How do you point out to people that a shopping center built outside of
a village or a town kills the existing village or town center and creates
a costly slum where one did not formerly exist and where healthy businesses
did exist? And of course how do you explain that it is the local body
politic that will pick up those costs whereas the developer moves on and
builds another shopping center or mall in another rural area? And, in
the end, isn't that too a public health issue?
Land use and land use controls are anathema in this country and yet overall
land use controls are absolutely necessary and will become more so over
time. A developer should be encouraged to develop where it is good for
him and for the public to develop. He should be encouraged to develop
in a sustainable fashion and he should be encouraged to redevelop. There
is enough work in this country in terms of redevelopment and rehabilitation
of slum areas to keep the construction industry people busy for 50 years.
All the construction trades!
We need to look at all our zoning and building code requirements to see
why developers find it more profitable to rip up valuable farm lands and
impossible to put new facilities in old, decaying city centers which need
to be renewed. There is a good reason behind every action of the developer
who is interested in the bottom line - money. Those of us who are environmentalists
and are interested in sustainable development had better carefully look
at that reasoning and see why it exists and how it can be changed and
encouraged along different ways that would be more sustainable and beneficial
in the long run.
But let's get back to public health for a minute. I ask you a question.
Is the lack of a park in a slum area just an environmental problem or
also a matter for public health concern? Is unsafe and unsanitary and
decaying housing a matter for public health concern? Is crime, or the
fear of crime a matter that affects public health? Is the urban environment
in general a matter of public health concern? Is the spread of disease
by contaminated water or some other vector a matter for narrow public
health concern or part of an overarching concern for our environment as
a whole? I think that public health and environmental concerns are inseparably
intertwined. You can't deal with one without dealing with the other.
The question then becomes, from your point of view, how you are going
to explain that to the public. And that of course is the political problem
that those of us who are concerned about ecology, environment, and public
health-- all of those aspects--must address. If we believe in the rubric
that underlies the concept of sustainable development, which is that we
must leave a world for our children that is better than the one in which
we live and the one we found, then we have got to make that case in a
more coherent and logical fashion to the public at large in this country.
So far, we haven't really done that. That's the challenge for you - and
for all of us. Good luck!