by Emily Guo '19, Lawrenceville School
When the fundamental 1970 Clean Air Act and 1972 Clean Water Act were passed, they were popular bipartisan bills, yet now, a climate change denier heads the EPA in what looks to be an awfully bleak situation. How have policies changed so drastically from the fervent environmentalist movements of the 1970s? Historically in the US, beginning from the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 under Richard Nixon to its compromisation in 2017 under Donald Trump, environmental policy has routinely come under fire from business and conservative interests due to the high costs associated with these regulations. A glance at the chronology of EPA laws shows that no new major legislation has been introduced since 1990 under President G. H. W. Bush. This makes the Obama administration’s policies all the more substantial as they take into account the additional three decades of environmental damage and pollution that the 1990 laws do not.
That same reason is also why news of President Trump’s recent plans to scale back the Obama administration’s agenda focusing on reducing carbon emissions in favor of bringing back fossil fuels is enough to strike fear into the hearts of anyone even remotely invested in global sustainability efforts. While a couple of rollbacks seems inconsequential when compared to the dozens of other environmental policies currently active, the significance of the Trump administration’s rollbacks lies more so in what they have overturned and not necessarily in how many policies they’re overturning. (Not that the sheer number of policies overturned doesn’t matter; both Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School have produced their respective Environmental Regulation Rollback Trackers, which should give us all a sense of just how dire the situation is.)
Necessary to drafting efficient and impactful environmental legislation for the future is understanding why past policies have failed or succeeded. Counterintuitively, such policies are often anthropocentric, centering around the needs of humans rather than the environment affected. Often written under the pretense that humans follow the homo economicus model where we operate as completely rational beings who consistently pursue our self-interests, policies also regularly favor actions that center around the belief that nature operates best when left to its own devices. This oversimplification may do more harm than good in that it assumes the inherent separation of humans from nature. In that sense, the EPA’s current administrative head Scott Pruitt agrees. In recent statements, Pruitt has argued for bringing back “true environmentalism,” which entails “using natural resources like fossil fuels and agricultural products to their fullest potential, while being mindful of their impact.”
The essence of Pruitt’s argument is that environmentalism should be about “stewardship, not prohibition”; we have been blessed with remarkable natural resources, thus we have an obligation to use them for the greater good while also keeping the health of the planet in mind. This sounds like a win-win situation, yet the reality is that these ideals have been the operative backbone of the sustainability-economy balance for decades, and we have seen that this balance is not feasible. The need for resources will always overpower conservation, so the issue becomes one of maximizing efficiency rather than expansion of production.
One of the greatest follies of sustainability is its outstanding ability to be something that almost everyone advocates for yet simultaneously something that is rarely anyone’s priority. The “out of sight, out of mind” mentality causes many of us to be blissfully aware of events that don’t affect us or take place outside our little bubbles. It can be hard to imagine that we as high schoolers in the northeastern United States can have any viable impact on the seemingly hopeless situation that is currently the US government’s sustainability efforts, but we must also keep in mind that a) we are the next voting generation and b) the EPA is an organization that is buttressed by public support. In the meantime, we can do our part by participating in all the eco-friendly habits we can and support other larger scale environmentalism programs.
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Letzter, Rafi. “Big changes could be coming to the EPA — but no one is sure what.” Business Insider, Insider Inc, Jan 28, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/epa-what-happening-science-gag-order-donald-trump-2017-1.