EPA administrator Lisa Jackson's imminent departure from her position was a non-event in Washington D.C. in much the same way that the EPA has been an afterthought on the American political scene for at least a generation. I am far from an objective observer of the EPA. I worked for the agency in the late 1970s and early 1980s and worked as a consultant to the EPA for many years since then. It is a great agency filled with talented and dedicated people, but as Administrator Jackson's departure indicates, it is not a player in the power equation in the Obama administration.
While mayors such as Mike Bloomberg think of sustainability as a key element of New York's economic development and act as if they take it seriously, the Obama team is still trading off economic growth against environmental protection. They talk about sustainability, but do not act as if it is a priority. The EPA is still about "end of the pipeline" command and control regulation to make pollution illegal. It is not about figuring out how to make this planet productive enough to support all of us without self-destructing.
Like many lawyers, I assume the president and many of his closest advisors do not understand much about economics and probably even less about sustainability science. The economic policies of this administration have been both conventional and unimaginative. There has been no effort to integrate sustainable resource utilization and technological development into America's economic strategy. "Green jobs" has been a public relations ploy rather than an economic strategy.
Lisa Jackson was an excellent EPA administrator, and she remains a capable environmental professional. She pushed forward on climate change regulation under the Clean Air Act, brought about improved fuel efficiency standards and was an aggressive advocate for a clean environment. But the problem is that the EPA's approach to the environment is embedded in the environment-economic growth trade off. When the White House and the media (not to mention the House Republicans) think of the EPA, they think of it as the anti-growth, eat-your-spinach, don't use that plastic bag, Department of Things We Aren't Allowed to Do. Of course everyone knows that toxic air, water and land must be avoided. And no one wants to end up with the orange air they often have in China these days. So, yes, we have to follow the rules even if they cost us jobs and wealth, because we have to eat our spinach if we want to grow up big and strong.
The sustainability perspective turns all this on its head. The idea, based in part on an engineering field called industrial ecology, is to manufacture goods without emitting pollutants -- through the use of closed systems that ensure that all resources end up in some form of production. Sustainability does not trade off environment and wealth, it is built on the premise that the environment is a major source of our wealth. Careful use of natural resources makes a company more efficient and more profitable. Wasting energy and water does not add to a company's profits, market share or return on equity. Walmart requires its vendors to demonstrate sustainability to keep costs down along with environmental impacts. When New York City plants a million trees, it reduces air pollution and global warming, but it also makes the city a more attractive place to live and lifts housing values and tax revenues. When HP collects your toner cartridge and re-manufactures it, it makes rather than loses money on the exchange. Much of New York City's water is filtered by our ecosystem rather than a multi-billion dollar filtration plant.
The paradigm that the EPA operates under assumes inefficient and polluting manufacturing as a given, and then designs retrofits to make sure that the pollution is either minimized or directed away from people. That policy approach made sense in the 20th century and it worked spectacularly well. Until the EPA was created, our pollution levels were rising at a faster rate than GDP growth. By 1980 that had shifted. Our GDP continued to grow, but our air, water and land were getting cleaner.
While the tourniquet stopped the bleeding, it did little to cure the disease. Pollution was exported to developing countries as a global economy and world-wide communication and transport system was put into place. Population, urbanization and economic development grew dramatically as nations such as China, India and Brazil became major economic powers. The issue of resource depletion and destruction moved from the fringes of world politics to the center -- except here in the United States.
This country, in some ways symbolized by the EPA itself, seems stuck in a time warp. In our political culture and media the commies are still fighting the capitalists and the greens are still fighting the growth and jobs crowd. Meanwhile, the Chinese communists are turning into global capitalists, buying up companies all over the world. While America whines about taxes, China builds the world's longest bullet train. More importantly, the emerging Chinese elite understand that for economic development to be sustainable, it must be accomplished without destroying the air, land and water. And it requires a partnership between the public and private sectors.
Here in the U.S.A. we do not seem to be able to make the leap from environmental protection to environmental and economic sustainability. So Lisa Jackson and her agency do not have a seat at the economic policy table. Her successor won't be invited to dine at the adult table either.
What should we do? Let's try a sustainability strategy. The EPA, parts of the National Science Foundation, and parts of the Departments of Energy, Interior and Agriculture need to be integrated into a single Department or a White House directed Sustainability Task Force. The goal of the new Department or Task Force would be to achieve a rapid transition to a green economy. We need an all hands, well financed effort focused on basic research, infrastructure investment, along with rigorous rules governing resource development, use and pollution. The nation's economic strategy should be built on the transition to a green economy, not undertaken as if the issue can be avoided or ignored.
I would be more than a little surprised to see an idea like this emerge from the ongoing horror movie now playing in our nation's capital. But it's time to move past just protecting the environment. We must protect the environment, because if we don't have clean air, water and food we will get sick and die. But we must also learn to use this planet more effectively for the well-being of all. America has no unit of government focused on integrating environmental protection with economic development. It's time to build one.
Follow Steven Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/StevenACohen