TALES OF OUR TIMES: Costs Say Little Without Context

By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Costs Say Little Without Context

Now four decades into the “eco-age,” I wonder why the economic impact of cleaning up remains so hazy. The reason, I think, is mutual fear … fear on both sides that the numbers will hurt their cause. 
Every environmental debate is a contest between two values – the vitality of nature and the economy. The rebuttal to each comes from the other.

Nature studies abound. Nature studies means studies of air, water, land, and every living thing therein and thereon, as measured in physical terms, not somebody’s dollars.

Harm to nature is probed in every detail, while opposing interests choose which results to tout. All sides call for more and deeper studies. All the while, economic studies are as scarce as loggers in the Sierra Club. 

Greens must push to get economic studies done with the same rigor as the nature studies. Yet inbred fear prevents it.

A core value of the environmental movement is that man cannot live on dollars alone. Even totting up the bucks is scorned by some as the counter force to loving the Earth. Greens grow up thinking economics is the other side’s magnum steamroller. Industry is keen to agree. Business has no reason to look at data so long as bald assertions continue to work better. So by silent consent, people prefer not knowing the economic impacts of environmental improvements.

The frequent claim that cleanup expenditures harm companies sounds logical at first cry. But the generality is no different from saying radiation causes cancer. The statement is one possibility, but it is such a small part of the whole story as to be meaningless standing alone. It is as pointless as saying life causes cancer.

To learn something, we must ask how much. How much what causes what? How much expenditure, divided how, causes what result? The data to be studied stand knee-deep all around. For decades, industry has spent billions of dollars a year to clean the air and water. Industries proclaim the billions. But a billion dollars says as little about economic impact as a billion nanocuries says about cancer.

For a level debate, economic answers are needed. How are the industries and companies that spend the money faring in the marketplace? What are all the factors that contribute, in what proportion?
How are the controls industries, who gain the money, faring? What is the net balance – of profits, of growth, of jobs? How does the economy compare before and after controls? 

Few look at the record and fewer tell.    

This custom has roots in quick-draw debating. Each side likes to paint its own case with a broad stroke. One side likes saying “expenditures cause ruin;” the other likes “toxins cause ruin.” Either line is no better than the other.

The business side rightly pushes greens to prove their case in terms of quantifiable effects – what damage to nature is provably due to what factor. Thus, the endless nature studies. 
Greens, though, fail to exert comparable pressure to assess and prove economic effects, as distinct from lump costs. When greens do push, companies promptly stamp the evidence “confidential” to keep it hidden.

The few careful studies made here and there find the net effect of cleanup on the economy is too small to see – maybe a little harm or maybe a boost. The rough evidence says the same thing.
Spending on cleanup does not ruin the economy.

The debate of regulations would be more useful if public opinion forced everyone to meet the same standard of proof for both competing values. Evidence would bring economic insights not found in today’s harangues.

Pursuit of economic data helps the environment, the economy and the nation.

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