Double Agent for the Greens?

As the readers of this publication are probably aware, environmental regulation is a hot subject for conservatives right now. In the battle to reduce the size and scope of the federal government, we are seeing the first counterattacks to what has been a two-decade-old regulatory jihad by the federal government. And to assist in the revolt, a slew of conservative books and pamphlets have become available detailing not only the quasi-religious, socialist nature of the Green worldview, but also the incredible abuses of law-enforcement power that have followed from the nebulous language of current federal environmental legislation.

No one would enjoy the kind of work necessary to fight this battle, done by people like Rep. David McIntosh of Indiana, who must master the minutiae of federal law, scrutinize the weak extrapolations of today’s rat-based science, and debate the likes of EPA head Carol Browner every night on some wonk channel or other. But this kind of analysis is vital if public perceptions, still strongly in favor of activist government when it comes to the environment, are to be changed. We must tirelessly remind the public not only that present federal environmentalism is by unintended consequences hurting the environment and health, but also that current federal environmental law is wiping out traditional protections we have enjoyed under the common-law tradition–as Timothy Lynch points out in the Cato Institute’s Policy Analysis No. 223, “Polluting our Principles: Environmental Prosecutors and the Bill of Rights”–like being considered innocent of a crime unless we both actually commit it (actus reas), and know we are committing it (mens rea).

With all the controversy about, I am sorry to say that if you want a good book on conservative environmentalism, this is not the one to buy. And that is too bad, because Gordon Durnil occupied the kind of position that is in the midst of, as he calls it, “a laboratory for learning” for environmentalists and free-market advocates, the Great Lakes region.

Mr. Durnil is a former member of the International Joint Commission, a bilateral body charged by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 with making recommendations to maintain environmental quality in and around the waters shared by the United States and Canada. The organization provides a bureaucratic double shot, coordinating the policy not only of two federal governments, but of the surrounding provincial and state governments as well. The massive international commons it seeks to protect contains twenty percent of the world’s fresh water and supports a remarkable network of commercial activity.

The book is for the most part Mr. Durnil’s reflection on his time served on the Commission and some of its more significant accomplishments as he sees them. But there is little conservative philosophy in it. Mr. Durnil makes occasional genuflections to the free market, limited government, and traditional values, but the book lacks substance.

It is also unclear who the target audience is. The book is very light on detail, and embarrassingly heavy on generalizations about lobbyists, lawyers, members of the media, and government officials. Mr. Durnil for the most rehashes his service, complete with “As I said in this speech” followed by an excerpt, etc., and several uninteresting sections devoted to the bureaucratic arts of “decision making,” “listening,” “bringing people together,” “communicating,” and “involving the public.”

But most importantly, Mr. Durnil’s policy prescriptions, particularly about how to handle chlorine and its by-products, are right out of the Greenpeace playbook.

Mr. Durnil recommends, as the International Joint Commission has done, two things.

1) The lumping together into one regulatory class of all chlorine by-products. Simply on prudential grounds, because not all chlorine products are the same, this has been criticized by the American Council on Science and Health, the American Society of Toxicology, the American Chemical Society, and the American Medical Association as a simplistic and unscientific strategy. This one-size-fits-all agenda can only be understood in light of the larger objective of the IJC, with serious prodding from Greenpeace: 2) “Sunsetting” or phasing out the use of chlorine altogether. This, dear reader, is absolute madness.

Mr. Durnil is concerned about a series of industrial by-products released into the atmosphere that come from the use of chlorine. PVCs, dioxin, furans, etc. The traditional charge by environmentalists is that these by-products “mimic” human hormones, such as estrogen, which result in various serious problems like cancer, reduced size of male genitalia, and low sperm counts. The moral point, an eminently conservative one Mr. Durnil argues, is that we have no right to impose any such risk of hardship on future generations of Americans through the process of industrial dumping into places like the Great Lakes. Thus there should be no dumping, no chlorine.

Following from this moral imperative, Mr. Durnil dismisses the government’s current practice of risk analysis or risk management, which is not without difficulties. Mr. Durnil and the IJC describe it as “unworkable” and “outmoded,” and he, and Greenpeace wish to do away with it. Republican lawmakers, on the other hand, are trying to improve government risk-management policies with their call for “cost-benefit” analysis of pending legislation. That is, they would require bureaucrats to evaluate all the possible costs of any governmental policy that interferes with the market, and weigh them against the possible benefits. (On the other hand, from a purely libertarian point of view, there is something to be said for scrapping the risk-management approach completely–thus taking bureaucrats out of the equation completely–and returning to an earlier common-law tradition of property rights, and torts, allowing individuals who can show harm from industrial discharge to sue for damages, but to otherwise leave the market alone. But this too does not eliminate risk.)

With their emphases on calculation, and their apparent tolerance for the passing on of risk, risk management, cost-benefit analysis, and even tort law might seen as eminently utilitarian approaches to governing, which could reduce human suffering into a mere manageable number. Clearly this is Mr. Durnil’s fear.

Now I can say as a traditional Catholic with some experience in moral theology and ethics that I have no great love of utilitarian thought, which has a tendency to turn people into means to our ends. But Mr. Durnil’s anti-industrial ethic distorts the significance of risks of living in a world with other human beings.

Ninety-nine percent of the cancer risk humans have is from things like poor nutrition, smoking, etc., not industrial pollution. So, where we legally allow chlorine-based releases into the environment, we are already a long way from deliberately allowing harm to others. But more importantly, if harm does result from most chlorine-based industrial output, it is practically unintended, because of the more important fact that such harm would be in complete defiance of astronomical odds as we understand them. There is simply no appreciable risk to humans from chlorine.

The reason why the public perceives a risk from chlorine releases into the environment is the poor understanding it has about our present methods of determining risk, which are seriously flawed. Much of what current law determines to be “risky” is not clearly risky to humans, but risky to rats.

Now if you know anything about rats, you know they are little cancer machines. They get cancer if you look at them too long. So when we determine what constitutes a real risk, we need to be aware of this “rat-gap.” Take for example this factoid from the American Council on Science and Health. All fruits and vegetables contain rat carcinogens. Yet, they are the single most effective means of protection for humans from cancer. Should we then get rid of vegetables? It is clear that they “might” cause human cancer, because science can never prove a negative (the absence of human cancer risk). But the fact that they “might” contribute to human cancer in some case does not outweigh their dramatic benefit. The healthiest things you do in life contain risk. The question is how much? Humans do quite well, to paraphrase Fred Smith, while “swimming in an ocean of risk.”

Now, consider a few of the facts as well as benefits of chlorine and chlorine by-products, which also prevent cancer by other means. Chlorine is a naturally occurring substance, and many of the by-products which environmentalists want to do away with are organically produced in the exact same form by forest fires and living organisms. Chlorine is used in the production of 85 percent of the world’s pharmaceuticals and vitamins. It is used in 96 percent of all crop-protection chemicals. It is the only truly effective source of fighting water-borne disease like cholera, ozone being a poor substitute with equal or greater toxic problems. It is used in drugs to treat depression, arthritis, cancer, ulcers, malaria, coronary disease, among others. PVC, a chlorine by-product is used in myriad ways in construction, provides the benefit of replacing iron piping, which contaminates the environment terribly. The cost in health and industry of suddenly changing all these products and procedures would be astronomical, but that is what the “conservative” Mr. Durnil wants to do on the basis of flimsy rat science, and what the Clinton administration is now planning at his request. *

Mr. Durnil suggests munificently that industry should be consulted by the bureaucracy about these changes, and will learn to adapt to the elimination of chlorine. Thus there is allegedly no serious dilemma. But does Mr. Durnil provide sufficient reason to do what he wishes, or provide evidence to show that he is aware of the impact on industry and health by unintended consequences? No. I would give him more credit if he at least went into more detail. Rather, he simply asserts that the radical environmentalist science, which he finds convincing, is “on the table,”–suggesting that the opposing view’s science is not, which is plainly false. As Chesterton once said, the difference between a reformer and a deformer is that the reformer sees the reason for something, but finds a better reason against it, while the deformer simply shouts, “I see no reason for this!” and disposes of it. Mr. Durnil’s book, with such a lack of detailed argumentation gives the impression that he is the latter.

Mr. Durnil’s views are those of the classic bureaucrat; empowered to be compassionate, to “care,” he is insulated by legal mandate from the cost of his actions, or the need for circumspection. He will attempt to eliminate all risk from life, no matter how insignificant. The public presently understands this as an exercise in morality. We must be sure, without sinking into crude notions of utility, that we offer an informed counterpoint.