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Jobs vs. the Environment

The environmental movement is stalled in this nation. The topic of climate change is anathema to the Republican presidential candidates, and our incumbent president is tepid on the subject at best. The US stands alone among industrialized nations who all seem to be making progress in switching to alternative energy sources and reducing their carbon emissions. Germany is on track to obtain 80% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050; Denmark plans for 100% by the same date. China, it has been much reported, now leads the world in wind turbine production. The US meanwhile continues to give generous tax breaks to coal and oil companies. Despite the rancorous debate in Washington to reduce federal spending, those tax breaks merit hardly a mention at all.

Our reticence regarding man-made Climate change is alarming—especially when the vast majority of scientists acknowledge it—but it fits with a larger trend in this country, where environmental vigilance is progressively eroded, even thwarted, largely in the name of the recession.

In a move that greatly upset the environmentalists a few months ago, Obama rejected proposed emission reduction rules from the EPA, heeding the warning from business interest groups that these rules would cost the country thousands of jobs. More recently, in rather Machiavellian fashion, the president tabled a decision on the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada until just after next year’s presidential elections. The pipeline would create thousands of construction jobs—albeit temporary ones—but environmentalists complained that it would endanger sensitive ecosystems, and keep us addicted to a dirty energy source. Some environmentalists saw the president’s indecision as a victory, though there is little to indicate he will come down on their side next year. After all, this is the same man who has consistently favored subsidies for corn-based ethanol—in the name of jobs—though it is widely viewed as an environmental and humanitarian disaster: corn ethanol involves plenty of petroleum to produce, it reduces cars’ fuel efficiency (just imagine), and drives up the price of food commodities worldwide.

The president has been a disappointment for environmentalists in many respects, but the Republicans promise far worse, including a dramatic reduction in the powers and resources of the EPA. Some of the presidential hopefuls have said they would like to dissolve the agency altogether. The Republicans habitually side with the US Chamber of Commerce, the powerful business lobby, which is critical of just about any and all environmental regulations of business. According to the ardent free marketers at the Chamber of Commerce, companies can regulate themselves in the public interest, and should be spared the inefficient, shortsighted and expensive meddling of power-hungry bureaucrats. Crippling the EPA would create more jobs and prosperity, they argue.

It would of course be disastrous to cripple or close the EPA, and a cautionary tale reported recently on NPR reminds us why. Tonawanda Coke in upstate New York is accused of being responsible for excessive levels of benzene – a known cancer-causing agent—in the area around its plant, where it bakes coal into coke for steel production. For years the plant’s self-reported pollution estimates were very low, but then cancer rates among neighboring residents spiked, and a whistle-blower revealed that the plant was so dilapidated that it regularly pumped benzene directly into the atmosphere. When the EPA finally inspected the plant in 2009, the agency confirmed the whistle-blower’s reports, and also ran its own tests of the plant’s benzene emissions: the plant had previously reported 3 to 5 tons of emissions per year; the EPA’s test showed 91 tons. Clearly, this is no clerical error on the company’s part.

When Tonawanda Coke was given the opportunity to regulate itself, it failed miserably—and intentionally—but we should not be surprised. In the age of globalization, we can’t expect companies to regulate themselves vigilantly or honestly while their competition in developing nations pollutes at will. We allow companies to regulate themselves at our own peril.

But there is a further point: Free-marketers maintain that less environmental regulation will spell greater corporate prosperity, encourage companies to hire more people, and drag us out of this lingering recession. And yet, we hear repeatedly that companies are already flush with cash but refrain from expanding their workforces anyway—thanks to productivity gains. Thus, the free-marketers’ argument doesn’t necessarily follow. Environmental laxity may leave us with increased pollution and not much else to show for it.

When I hear the familiar refrain of ‘jobs versus the environment,’ I have the sinking suspicion it’s just another excuse for negligent—nonexistent—self-regulation on the part of corporations. We can’t let the pressures of this recession tempt us away from our duty to deliver a cleaner nation to our children.

Firmin DeBrabander is chair of the Humanistic Studies department at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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