February 18, 2017
Scott Pruitt has become the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He received 52 Senate votes, against 46 votes against him. The irony that someone who has been involved in more lawsuits against the EPA than any other in his tenure as Attorney General of Oklahoma is now in charge of that very agency is not lost on anyone. We should all pray for him to fulfill his duties faithful to the mission of the EPA, but we should also be active citizens who raise critical questions as he pursues that mission. We need to stay informed, talk with our neighbors and remain hopeful.
There are two things that Administrator Scott Pruitt has been consistent on. First, he thinks the balance between environmental protection and economic growth has been too tilted toward protecting the environment. Second, he thinks that federalism is the best way in which to approach environmental regulation. It is important to understand what these two ideas mean and how they impact our capacity to address climate change and its consequences.
Our economic model is basically an extractive one. We take the resources out of nature, such as fossil fuels, precious minerals, etc., and we transform those resources into products that are sold in the world market. This generates income that is distributed, to varying degrees of fairness, throughout the market. At the same time, our economic model demands continual growth. This model has been tremendously powerful in increasing the standard of living for millions of people around the world, and presumably will continue to do that for more and more millions of people. The challenge of the model, which is often either not recognized, or if recognized, ignored, is that it rests on the assumption that natural resources are infinite. They are NOT! In fact, we are rapidly approaching peak oil production, which means that the source of oil in the ground will gradually, and at some point, rapidly move toward zero. It is also the case that if everyone on the planet were to live a standard of living similar to a middle class citizen of the United States, we would need at least three, if not four, additional earths. The economic model we are insisting must be the basis of our economic life is simply not sustainable. So, when someone like Scott Pruitt wants economic growth to be ascendant in environmental policy, what he is actually doing is either ignoring, or rejecting, the reality that our resources are limited. They are limited not only in terms of the particular resources being exhausted but the general resources, such as clean air, clean water, fertile soil, are being exhausted, deteriorated, destroyed by the very economic model that has served humanity so well for the last 150-200 years but which is now seriously complicit in the sometimes slow, and sometimes rapid, deterioration of the planet’s capacity to support human life as we’ve known it. As Mr. Pruitt begins his tenure, we need to regularly raise these kinds of issues, based on basic physics and common sense.*
Federalism is one of many wonderful gifts that the Founding Fathers bequeathed us back in 1787. It involves the idea that the states of the United States enjoy a significant degree of independence from the federal government when it comes to governing, including regulations on economic and environmental concerns. For example, states are primarily responsible for education in their states, and it is a legitimate debate as to how and when the federal government is warranted in interfering in states’ rights to pursue their vision of education. The states are in charge of elections, in charge of their criminal justice system, and in charge of the insurance and healthcare institutions that operate in their jurisdiction. The federal system has has served us very well since our founding; central to this debate is the enumeration clause of the US Constitution which lays out those things the federal government is responsible for. Those that are not listed are reserved to the states. The things that are justifiably federal responsibilities include national defense, interstate commerce and relations with foreign nations. There is also a federal justice system that addresses crimes on a federal level, and adjudicates civil and criminal cases that cross states’ lines. There is no argument that states have rights that ought not to be trampled by the federal government. Mr. Pruitt thinks that the EPA, especially under President Obama, has trampled on states’ rights; he promises to roll back federal overreach.
What is rather obvious, though, about environmental issues is that very few are limited to individual states. Air doesn’t know state boundaries, many bodies of water and aquifers traverse multiple states lines. The climate is a global phenomenon, not limited to even a nation, let alone a state. A challenge that is beyond the capacity of a state is handle competently and effectively is a challenge that ought to be handled by the federal government. We see this already operating, as indicated above, with national defense, with interstate commerce and foreign relations. The environmental, in many respects, is a similar issue. Of course, the enumeration clause doesn’t explicitly identify the environment as an area of federal power, so Mr. Pruitt can rest his position on a prima facie reading of that clause. However, is it unreasonable to think that the Founding Fathers, for whom the environment was an unlimited resource and so not on their radar as a worry, included these items in the clause precisely because they deal with issues no one state can handle on its own? So, if states’ rights is a principle that Mr. Pruitt wants to uphold, then in his search for a better balance, he is responsible to recognize that many of the areas under his purview are only capable of being addressed competently and effectively at the federal level, a point codified in law by Congress and upheld by the US Supreme Court.
Can there be debate about the balance? Sure, but that debate needs to be rooted in an honest appraisal of our situation, not a blind allegiance to an ideology that was developed in another age, with dramatically different conditions. We no longer have infinite resources and our way of living has global impact. I hope that Mr. Pruitt takes seriously his responsibility as the administrator of the EPA. I hope also that he allows reality to dictate how he fulfills those responsibilities and not a blind ideological disposition that undermines fulfillment of those responsibilities.
What I can do, what each of us can do, is continue to inform ourselves, continue to talk to people, even those with whom we disagree, and to advocate for those actions and policies that are grounded in the best science but also in a growing recognition that old economic models are no longer appropriate, if, and this is a big IF for some, we hope to maintain any semblance of the life that has emerged thus far in the history of this planet.
Read later in this newsletter about an opportunity to raise your voice, and move your feet, in support of earth-friendly government and business policies, on Saturday, April 29, 2017 in Washington, DC.
God’s blessings on you, Administrator Pruitt, as you begin your service of the American people, and the planet that we all love and need.
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
President Emeritus, CFET Board
*For more on this topic, see Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Endurable Future, by Bill McKibben, published in 2007 by Macmillan