You may have heard something about the huge push in Congress to overturn or weaken some of our nation’s central environmental laws. Politicians want to pull back the scope of the Clean Air & Water Acts to allow polluters to skirt expensive upgrades to cleaner equipment and practices.
They argue that such regulations are an impediment to business, and with our weakened economy, we can’t afford to make corporations pay for their pollution. But how else would we safeguard the commons — the health of the population and the environment — from those companies’ pollution?
Last night, the Senate’s newest libertarian stalwart, Rand Paul of Kentucky, was Jon Stewart’s guest on the Daily Show, and surprisingly, they dedicated a large portion of their discussion to tackling this very issue (it really starts up about 1:50 in):
Now, the most important thing to keep in mind here is how Paul keeps repeating the refrain that “things are a lot better now” for the environment than they were in the 60s and before, but he fails to acknowledge that this is almost exclusively thanks to the extensive implementation of a series of powerful environmental laws: The Clean Water Act, the creation of the EPA, and the Clean Air Act.
Accounting for environmental protection is one of the biggest challenges that libertarians and free market fundamentalists face — there’s no good way to get businesses to pollute less, to safely dispose of waste, or to protect animal populations from their operations. There’s simply no market incentive for businesses do so; on the contrary, it’s usually cheaper for businesses to choose not to operate in an environmentally conscious manner. It’s not because businesses are nefarious, conniving greed-mongers, either — they may or may not be — it’s just that protecting the environment can only be measured as an impediment to their bottom lines, and thus doing so comes into direct friction with a capitalist system that has no built-in way of rewarding good environmental behavior.
Which is why we need those laws to be upheld — nobody else is going to protect the environment in a meaningful way.
A version of this post first appeared at TreeHugger.