The Law and the Land


I was at a party the other day and started to talk to some new people. Good, right? Well, the conversation veered into politics and the environment, which is not so good. I’m not sure if I made friends that night--we’ll have to wait and see about that--but at the very least, I had a great time debating a somewhat touchy subject. Interestingly, everyone felt very strongly about the environment. Where we disagreed was on the law: I felt that it wasn’t the law’s place to tell me how to care for the environment, while most of the others felt, to varying degrees, that the government has a big role to play in environmental policy. I know that you steer clear of politics, but I felt like all of us where a little short on facts that night, so I thought I’d ask the experts for a little background. What factual basis does each of our positions have?

Environmental policy has been a part of the American political landscape since at least 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed legislation that created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The modern political landscape includes debates over global warming, oil pipelines, and more--but all of these issues come down to the same basic conflict. The question, of course, is the balance between regulations and results.

Your position, of course, is that individual action is what environmental solutions should rely on. This is certainly the simplest solution: the government stays out, individuals opt in, and the environment benefits without the force of law behind it. It’s certainly true that our individual environmental footprints are worth addressing, especially since statistics show that Americans are disproportionately responsible for hurting the environment. But is enough to rely on individual action?

Probably not: after all, local laws are the reason that you can (and must) put that recycling bin out with your trash. And one look at business’ impact on the environment is enough to prove that individuals alone can’t fight the trend: businesses must get in on it, and businesses are not necessarily going to be moved to do so without a law. And these laws exist, experienced attorneys say, and range from rules for massive businesses to directives aimed at small businesses.

Businesses could also, of course, be moved by a profit motive. Hybrid cars and biodiesel fuels (which can be created from recycled cooking oil) can be marketed as green and cost-efficient solutions, which makes them appealing to customers and profitable even absent government regulation, some experts argue. But the cost to develop these technologies was subsidized by government programs, and auto emissions guidelines like California’s have improved efficiency and cleanliness a necessity.

Of course, excessive regulation isn’t cheap for businesses, and U.S. businesses don’t want an extra handicap as they compete with foreign companies. After all, the US may be the second-worst country in the world in terms of environmental impact, but a lot of other countries matter, too. On the other hand, can the US effectively pressure countries like China and Brazil--which are contributing to pollution and other environmental problems as their economies grow and develop--to put environmental regulations in place while keeping its own regulations lax?

Few modern political minds argue against the National Park system or municipal recycling, but there are a host of other government regulations to consider when it comes to environmental policy. Individual action is essential, but not enough on its own; however, balancing the interests of business and our country’s standing in the world with the future of that world itself is easier said than done. The debate is ongoing--and now you know what you need to know in order to be a part of it!

There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew. -- Marshall McLuhan

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