Research Papers and Essays
Ronnie Oldham

William Ruckelshaus' Sustainable World:
A Cure for Pollution or a Prescription for Disaster?

    The past few decades have witnessed a significant increase in individual awareness of the effects of pollution. Massive government bureaucracies have been created to monitor and regulate releases of known pollutants into our environment. Large scale projects to clean up the environmental legacy of previous generations are underway or have been completed. Community recycling is becoming commonplace and there is a general preference among consumers for products that are environmentally sensitive in their manufacture and packaging. Still, most everyone will agree that these efforts are little more than our first steps toward a sustainable world. The finite nature of our natural resources is generally understood by most of the population; still, change in our behavior and consumption patterns typically occurs only when the desired changes are economically feasible.

    In his article, Toward a Sustainable World, former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus examines potential policy actions for achieving a society and an economy that is ecologically sustainable. He restates many common environmentalist arguments for increased regulation and spending and suggests that no cost is too high to protect us from ourselves. He contends that "environmental protection and economic development are complementary rather than antagonistic processes" (167), yet his proposals conform to few macroeconomic models and are supported by data that is empirically questionable. His goals seem more in line with radical movement toward world government with scientists establishing the policy goals and methods.

    The problem of externalities, particularly concerning pollution, is a routinely studied macroeconomic issue. This article fails to adequately discuss how the costs of factors of production, such as clean air or water, are passed along to an unsuspecting public. These costs are not checks to be cashed later by an "profligate heir" (169). They have currents effects. Most economists agree that products are under-priced as a result of externalities. The market implications not addressed in the article can be significant. Additionally, the author's comparison of the proposed undertaking to "war" (170) as a means of achieving short term goals, fails to address long term implications. According to both Classical and Keynesian models, the stated objective is not achieved in the long run and the negative consequences could be devastating.

    Questionable evidence, particularly dollar amounts and survey results, is cited throughout the article. Comparisons are presented from various years without a source or any indication of whether the figures given are in nominal or in constant dollars. This detracts from the credibility of his argument. The author is correct in suggesting that it is foolish to assume that future technology will solve the problem; however, it is just as unwise to assume that everything must be accomplished with existing technology and paid for today. Investment in research and new technologies should increase and it is.

    Ruckelshaus appears to have an agenda other than the rational application of science in solving the problem of pollution. He proposes spending large sums of money and establishing powerful environmental agencies in every country staffed with like-minded individuals. Much of the article is devoted to his goal of a "global institution" to solve a "global problem" (174). The obvious impact of the rise in the rate of population growth, perhaps the primary factor in the depletion of Earth's resources, is hardly addressed. Why do his radical changes in policy fail to address this issue? Mr. Ruckelshaus states that "Effective policies will include a mixture of incentive-based and regulatory approaches" (170). His example of an incentive is a "Climate Protection tax" of $53 billion annually (172).

    He admits that protection of the environment is an international issue where "the industrialized nations will face their greatest challenges" (174). His solution is to forgive debt and substantially increase aid, though he failed to indicate how the money should be spent. He casually suggests that "Basic international trading relations will have to be redesigned", yet the only justification mentioned is the "ill effects…of subsidies and tariff barriers" (174). The author is apparently unaware of the increasing trend toward free trade. Many of the justifications in the article for radical and immediate change in policy are based on goals that are currently being achieved through much less radical means.

    As mankind continues its present course, environmental concerns will continue to increase, though certainly not at the pace desired by Mr. Ruckelshaus. Still, there is reason for concern. As a society, mankind has typically failed to adequately anticipate and prepare for or avoid the problems associated with periods of great change. Thomas Malthus didn't foresee the development of modern agriculture, global markets, or birth control; yet his insight into the nature of man and his society remain relevant today. There is much justification for pessimism. Nonetheless, our species has historically demonstrated an immense capacity to adapt and survive during these crisis situations. Change in individual behavior happens only when it is perceived to be in the best interest of the individual concerned, a decision that usually comes down to perceived benefits and opportunity cost.



Works Cited

Ruckelshaus, William D. "Toward a Sustainable World." Scientific American Sep. 1989: 166-174.


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