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Values Proposition

EPA @ 50, and what it says about you and me

After a half-century of federal environmental protection in the United States, it's time to renew and refresh the agency's agenda.

US EPA headquarters


The American people always have possessed a very personal relationship with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Like all personal relationships, the EPA and its public have their share of successes and shortcomings, adjustments of expectations to realities, and recognition that the daily grind of complexity reveals our own values however much they end up being compromised.

Few institutions exhibit such a pervasive daily presence in American life as the EPA. Its decisions impact the air we breathe (indoors and outside), the water we drink, the food we eat, the health of the children we give birth to and raise, the cars and fuel we purchase, the beaches where we swim, the chemicals we consume (voluntarily or involuntarily) or the quality of nature that we enjoy.

The public health and environmental benefits of the EPA’s actions have been enormous, even while controversial. As one example, a draft report to Congress from the current administration estimated that, over the past decade, annual benefits from EPA regulations ranged from $196 billion to $706 billion, while yearly economic costs were between $54 billion and $65 billion.

On Dec. 2, the EPA will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its establishment, not by an act of Congress but through an executive decision of President Richard M. Nixon. It has carried out its mission through the various statutes enacted by Congress beginning in 1970. The 50th-anniversary commemoration will not be widely celebrated because the EPA has become a political lightning rod among anti-regulatory conservative groups — who have dominated the national narrative about environmental policy during most of the past 40 years — and the toxic management of the current administration has weakened numerous health and environmental safeguards.

However, the anniversary should stimulate serious reflection about what we as citizens expect from the EPA and ourselves if we are to successfully resolve the mounting domestic and international challenges that have placed the biological systems of our planet in various stages of collapse.

The anniversary should stimulate serious reflection about what we as citizens expect from EPA and ourselves.

A good place to begin that reflection is a new book by former senior EPA officials, "Fifty Years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Progress, Retrenchment and Opportunities," edited by A. James Barnes, John D. Graham and David M. Konisky and soon to be published by Rowman & Littlefield. (I am co-author of the chapter on environmental science.)

Long-term environmental policy observers will note that the EPA’s beginning coincided with a burst of public interest and participation to clean up America’s degraded skies, water and land. Often led by idealistic college students and affluent citizens of a growing middle class, a mass movement catalyzed new research, advocacy and media attention that greatly affected decisions in Congress and the executive branch and pioneered new judicial interpretations supportive of the EPA’s decisions.

Fast-forward 50 years to the present. Both America and the EPA have experienced what author George Packer described as the "unwinding" of American life. The phenomenon of the unwinding means that people who have been on this earth since at least the 1960s "have watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape … the order of everyday life … changed beyond recognition."

Unwinding support 

America’s relationship to the EPA and environmental policy also has experienced an unwinding that has manifested itself in four distinctive ways:

  • Environmental decision-making became less connected with core values and more focused around technocratic solutions. This understandable outcome resulted from a growing recognition that environmental problems were more complex than originally perceived and more costly to resolve. The resulting investments in science, technology and economic analysis, and debates over which scientific data and cost/benefit analysis met acceptable professional standards, moved the environmental conversation away from citizens and towards scientists and engineers and lawyers that knew how to craft or oppose regulations to support their positions. At times, these "insider" debates became dysfunctional (EPA’s scientific review of dioxin risks went on for about 20 years) and detracted from the ability to continuously engage in a broader public conversation about environmental priorities and the benefits of EPA policies to enhancing the quality of life.
  • Bipartisan politics largely died. The bipartisanship present at EPA’s founding generally persisted through subsequent decades until the mid-1990s and the unveiling of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. Deregulation was a central feature of this Republican agenda and has remained so to the present day. Democrats also abandoned the idea that the EPA should remain as an independent agency and, beginning with the Clinton administration, centralized much of environmental policymaking as part of the White House political operation. The financial advantages that Republicans and their corporate allies enjoyed supported their deregulatory agenda at all levels of government through gerrymandered congressional districts, volumes of commissioned studies conducted by their ideological supporters and more conservative judicial appointments. Both parties used environmental policy, and the EPA, as a weapon against their political opponents.
  • A debilitated and insecure middle class led to weakened support for environmental protection. Beginning in the 1970s, America’s post-World War II economic success buckled through a series of recessions and depressions, oil embargoes, high inflation and low inflation, de-industrialization and free trade policies and financial collapses that eroded the affluence of the middle class. As a result, the widespread societal consensus for environmental protection fragmented across social and economic class lines as middle- and lower-income voters focused more directly on job security, health insurance and the broader social safety net. Advocacy groups opposed to taking action on climate change, strengthening controls on particulate matter or controlling non-point sources of water pollution were able to exploit the economic anxieties of workers in America’s industrial states and the farm belt. Environmental organizations, and other members of the center-left and progressive communities, have been slow to recognize that enacting their agenda necessarily depends upon building a new political coalition to build hope and job opportunities for those whose incomes have not kept pace in a changing economy.
  • Public values have changed. Over several decades, public opinion polls consistently concluded that Americans support environmental protection as a second-tier priority (generally below health care, jobs and economic security, and education). These surveys, however, do not reveal that awareness of environmental problems necessarily motivates people to act upon this information, endorse specific policies or support EPA as an institution. The changing arc of the Baby Boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964) is a case in point. Boomers provided the tip of the emotional and advocacy spear for a host of environmental and social reforms while in their 20s and 30s. By the time they reached their 40s and 50s, their values and priorities had taken a decidedly more conservative turn in favor of tax cuts and more skepticism towards government intervention in the economy. They have represented a core part of the constituencies that elected the Reagan, Bush and Trump administrations and Republican control of Congress. As this generation, now proceeding into its retirement years, experiences the COVID-19 pandemic, its receptivity towards government taking preventive public health actions and securing a broader economic and social safety net appears to be evolving yet again.

Regenerating and refocusing

Renewing support for environmental protection, and for the EPA specifically, critically depends upon reviving America’s democracy. Such renewal depends upon success in three areas:

  1. Expanding voting and other forms of civic participation across all income levels and social groups so that environmental policymakers and legislators hear from a more representative range of voices across society;
  2. Assuring that future abundance is distributed more equitably and that the risks (environmental or economic) generated from such abundance are reduced and managed more effectively; and
  3. Rethinking the EPA’s role in advancing environmental and social justice.

The very complexity of American society and its overcharged political system has the unfortunate byproduct that issues don’t get the attention they deserve until a crisis emerges to focus public and political attention.

A regeneration agenda for the environment and EPA can advance through the following initiatives:

  • Re-establishing the EPA as a science-based, professional, independent agency whose decision-making processes are decoupled from any White House or campaign political operation. While the agency’s senior leadership will continue to be political appointees who will generally seek to reflect any specific administration’s priorities, supporting the professionalism and diversity of EPA staff and its adherence to widely accepted scientific and economic methods and peer standards can significantly augment its effectiveness, reputation and legitimacy.
  • Investing in and broadening public access to environmental data and decision-making. This should include expanding research to understand the impacts of pollution upon minority populations and supplementing the array of risk reduction tools beyond traditional regulation to expedite decision making. The EPA also must embrace more direct and extensive public engagement to listen to public concerns and explain its actions through community outreach, talk radio, town hall meetings and social media. Most EPA administrators and their leadership teams have not conceived these actions as a vital responsibility nor have they possessed the critical communications skills for success. Re-establishing the public’s relationship with the EPA is a vital factor in restoring the agency as a credible and effective — and non-political — public institution.
  • Integrating environmental protection within the economic renewal agenda. Expanding health care, investing in more innovative infrastructure (digital technologies and more equitable access to broadband) and decarbonizing the economy all provide unique opportunities to unify environmental and economic policies. Well-paying job opportunities, greater economic security, healthier lifestyles, more prosperous communities and a more sustainable planet are measurable outcomes of such a strategy.
  • Being explicit about the values that environmental policies support. Oftentimes, public policy decisions are submerged in a barrage of models and concepts that are impenetrable, even to many of the most senior leaders of the EPA and other agencies. If the outcome of an environmental decision will increase the cost of a consumer product as a means of protecting children’s health or reducing hospital admissions from pollution — then say so. Over time, and more often than not, the public will support such reasoning and appreciate the honesty and integrity through which it is offered.

The very complexity of American society and its overcharged political system has the unfortunate byproduct that issues don’t get the attention they deserve until a crisis emerges to focus public and political attention. Even more, unfortunately, our present moment is experiencing four simultaneous crises — public health, economic, race relations and global climate change.

The current unwinding largely was predicted and has been long in the making. It, too, can be resolved if economic investment, science-based policies and public engagement expand although the process will take time and be noisy and sometimes disruptive.

As for those Baby Boomers, many of whom have entered their retirement years, it’s time to pass the torch to the millennials and their idealism, new skills and alternative outlooks on life and the planet we inhabit.

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