Joel Makower in conversation with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

Makower: Tell me about that excitement in the agency. What are they excited about?

Jackson: First off, the agency is actually a lot wonkier and nerdier than most people recognize. There are a lot of lawyers at the agency, but there’s a huge concentration of scientists — everyone from our research and development staff who’ve been looking at ways to quantify the benefits of sustainability and natural capital. But also so many other things we look at, from green infrastructure on the water side or toxics pollution prevention on the health side. So they’re excited.

You look at the staff who do all the smart growth and work with communities at the community level. Local governments of all political stripes are starting to figure this out — “If I need more money I’m not going to get it unless I find a way to be more efficient, and then I take that money I saved and reinvest it in myself.” So there’s a lot of excitement there. Lots of excitement in what used to be our Pollution Prevention and Toxics Program; they changed the name to Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention because they really wanted to emphasize that. Lots of excitement in our recycling program — you know, we have the RCRA law, which is a mighty and wonderful law, admired the world over with this whole cradle-to-grave system. But what if there’s no grave? What if you are encouraging a much more circular economy?

So across the agency we know that technology and thinking has evolved. We just have to be really smart and careful about not jumping in and promising more than we can deliver, like Performance Track — building expectations so people say, “Oh, here we go again.” And making sure that the American public doesn’t think this is just a new buzzword, or that we’re not going to have the environmental cop on the beat.

Makower: What’s the vision of the social piece of sustainability? That’s not been part of your mandate, except perhaps in public health.

Jackson: One of the things that we have to be careful of — and this is where I think Congress would be 100 percent right — is that we don’t exceed the authorities that we’re given; we’re not in charge of making sure that social good is increased. When we do regulations, one of the things we have to make sure we’re always doing is not just looking at the average cost to the average person, but whether the cost is fairly borne: a 25 percent increase in your water bill may not mean very much to you at all, but could mean a lot to someone else. I think there would be some occasions when environmental justice and also the cost screens might indicate a different approach.

Makower: I love your optimism about trying to get business excited and engaged in a different way. I lived for 24 years in Washington and so I have enough skepticism to last a lifetime. But even if I never lived there, just watching from afar, I’m just challenged on how you change the conversation about EPA in terms of being this monolithic, anti-business agency.

Jackson: Do you know how many businessmen and women say to me, almost constantly, “I just want you to know I really support what you’re doing”? If we can do it with the American auto industry — which was, when we came into office, in dire straits economically, and it wasn’t because of anything EPA had done. But kudos to the President for recognizing that part of the solution was also some certainty about fuel economy and carbon emissions. Industry by industry, folks come to see that having that certainty and understanding where the government is going is very good.

So I’m actually very optimistic. I have a 16- and a 17-year-old, and I believe that they are steeped in these concepts, thanks to work you’ve done and other people have done, and they’re getting steeped in it in schools. I think the big concern a lot of people have is whether we have that much time.

Makower: What do you think?

Jackson: I think it’s changing faster than we think.