How Did It Get Started: Politics and Environmental Law

I was recently asked why it is that the federal government has had such a love affair with environmental regulation over the past 40 or 50 years.  I think I know the answer -- deception

When Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969, things started to happen.  Since that time, environmental awareness has gone from relative obscurity to being one of the top ten issues of the day. Certainly some of this change was caused by environmental interest groups like Sierra Club and Greenpeace, but if the environment had depended only on these types of groups, people would still be dumping used oil in the backyard. The real push for environmental reform came on the political front—the dozens of federal and state statutes and the thousands of pages of regulation that were created between 1970 and today.

But why weren’t the interest groups enough? Why did we end up with environmental regulation that rivals the bankruptcy and tax codes in complexity and sheer volume? Isn’t the environment above politics? Why doesn’t everyone simply demand and support a clean environment? It’s because people don't always tell the truth.

Over several decades you have seen the opinion polls consistently report that 70% to 80% of the people support a clean environment. Only love for mom and apple pie poll higher.  When you compare the poll results, however, with the sales of environmentally friendly products and the willingness to pay more in taxes or fees to accomplish that goal, you quickly determine that someone has been . . . uh . . . fibbing. The poll question that was actually being answered was: “If someone other than you is required to pay for it, would you give your wholehearted support to a clean environment?”

Still, if you look around today, there are dozens of environmental statutes in place.   That was a result of a few political leaders in the 1970s being convinced that a need for a cleaner environment existed but that the private sector could not accomplish it because of the huge costs involved.  In short, it was an issue that they viewed to be perfectly suited to federal, and at a later stage state, regulation.

My point is that a clean environment is extremely expensive and most people want others to pay for it. If this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t need to be told how and when and in what form we need to do something as obvious as keeping the planet clean. It is the huge costs of compliance coupled with the unwillingness of individuals to pay those costs that has made, and will continue to make, environmental regulation and politics great bedfellows.

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