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Holding back earth's wrath.

Holding Back Earth's Wrath

Earth's wrath at (our) assaults is slow to come, but relentless when it does." That is a (paraphrased) verse from American Nobel prize-winner Howard Nemerov's poem, "Magnitudes." The sobering reality of our time is that despite all of our industrial and technological accomplishments - despite all of the ways our presence has fundamentally altered the face of our planet - human society stands humbled by the forces of nature.

We now confront the very real possibility that our own activities, our own assaults, will unleash nature's wrath in a way unlike any we have previously experienced. I refer, of course, to the subtle but pervasive environmental stresses we now face: depletion of stratospheric ozone; global climate change; acid rain; deforestation and species loss; the presence of toxic substances in our air, our water, our food.

Nature is strong, resilient, persistent. It can, and will, adapt. It will survive. The interesting question, I think, is: Can we?

Let me set that question in context. For us in the United States, 1990 was a year of important environmental anniversaries. We observed the 20th anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency. We also observed the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Congress reauthorized and strengthened the Clean Air Act, with a strong boost from the president. It was a busy and productive year - the first in a new decade that is likely to be marked by intense concern and action on the environment.

In addressing this Directors & Boards audience of distinguished business leaders, I am very conscious of the crucial role corporations will play in helping this and other nations realize our people's high expectations for improving and protecting the environment. Allow me to look ahead with you to try to predict some of the defining characteristics of environmental concerns and policies during the 1990s.

Concern With Risks

First, I believe we will see an ever-growing concern with reducing risks to health and the environment. Paradoxically, the same affluent people who delight in skiing, scuba diving, or even hang-gliding find the idea of risks from chemicals in the air or water or food abhorrent.

Methods of detection are outstripping technologies of removal. Nevertheless, during the 1990s we will increasingly administer laws and regulations aimed at minimizing, or even eliminating, risks in the environment - even those risks that some may consider inconsequential.

Demand for Innovation

Second, in the coming years, we will witness and ever-growing demand that technological innovation address and resolve environmental problems.

Those companies associated with sensitive or controversial technologies, such as biotechnology, would do well to give a high priority to solving environmental problems. Helping clean up the environment will go a long way toward mollifying those wary or suspicious of specific, innovative technologies.

Early environmentalists expressed great concern about the byproducts of technology. But now the tendency among environmentalists and legislators is to invest even more faith in technology than do the scientists and engineers of industry. The current debate about the capacity of the auto industry to achieve reductions in pollutions reflects a great confidence in "action-forcing" technology.

Wariness About Growth

Third, we are likely to see a continuing wariness about "bigness" and about growth.

I have been struck by the number of concerns raised about how American, Western European, and Japanese corporations will behave toward the environment as they invest and build in Eastern Europe. We must take every precaution, one hears from some quarters, to ensure that Western or Japanese capital does not take advantage of growth-hungry governments and act at the expense of the environment.

One wants to answer such concerns by saying: "Go to these countries. Breathe the air in Silesia. Stand on the banks of the dried-up Aral Sea. Look at the unmanaged hazardous waste, or at the pollution levels in the Vistula or the Volga, or at the nuclear power plants of the U.S.S.R. Do this, and you will understand that just as communism decimated economies, so has it savaged the environment."

What are needed now are significant resources to reclaim strip-mined land, fouled air, and flammable water. In Eastern Europe, just as here at home, economic growth must be the engine of environmental improvement; it must pay for the technologies of protection and cleanup.

But every accident, every act of corporate environmental negligence, every evidence of recalcitrance or unconcern, feeds the perception of corporate insensitivity and furthers the climate of conflict and contention that leads to intrusive laws and regulations.

Unprecedented Public Concern

Fourth, I believe the coming decade will encompass an unprecedented, and largely sustained, public concern about the environment.

Indeed, even through all the vicissitudes of oil shocks, inflation, recession, and deregulation during the past 20 years, the march of environmental laws in the U.S. has been forward, vigorous, and uninterrupted. Now, public opinion polls indicate greater concern for the environment, greater support for environmental laws than ever before.

The pace of legislative initiatives will likely quicken in the years ahead. The question, then, will seldom be whether, but how?

I should hasten to add that, just as public concern is the highest it has ever been, so, too, is this nation's generation of waste per capita at record levels. People are aware of this paradox and uncomfortable about it. They want and expect help to do better.

Companies like Monsanto Co., 3M, Dow Chemical Co., and others have set in place programs designed to reduce by a very large percentage certain kinds of waste products. They are starting to ask questions like: Is this waste avoidable? Is there a better, less polluting process by which to manufacture this product? How will this product be used and disposed of?

New Kind of Legislation

Finally, I believe that the 1990s will be characterized by a new kind of environmental legislation - a type that is just as effective but far less expensive than the command-and-control approaches that have predominated during the past 20 years. I speak of performance-based laws that feature economic incentives.

In the new Clean Air Act, companies that voluntarily reduce their emissions of toxic air pollutants by 90% will be required only to submit their plans to the EPA for review and verification. The methods they employ will be left to them.

I invite business to work with us in crafting these new, cost-effective reforms. I invite you to welcome the new era and to acknowledge, as The Economist has put it, that "green growth can be good growth."

As we confront new and subtle threats to the very stability of the planet, we need to refashion our laws and restructure our relationships. We need a powerful new partnership of the major governmental and private institutions of our society.

For us in government, our watchwords must be performance and, increasingly, pollution prevention. For you in business, a reasonable demand is, "Let us determine how."

I am profoundly conscious of the many unmet environmental needs we face. We will achieve none of them alone. To achieve all or even most of them, we must ensure that our economy remains healthy and continues to produce the wealth to pay for protection and cleanup.

So, let us go forward with an eye toward real and significant environmental progress, and ever mindful of our differing roles:

- Government's, to set society's goals;

- Business's, to determine the most efficient way to achieve them.

This is the basis for a productive and powerful partnership for the 1990s.

William K. Reilly is Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the federal regulatory agency charged with improving and protecting public health and the environment. Prior to becoming the EPA Administrator in February 1989, Reilly held five environment-related positions over two decades, including President of the World Wildlife Fund, and President of The Conservation Foundation.
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Title Annotation:Chairman's Agenda: Managing Environmental Responsibility; environmental concerns during the 1990
Author:Reilly, William K.
Publication:Directors & Boards
Date:Jun 22, 1991
Previous Article:The environmental agenda for leaders.
Next Article:The environmental experts.

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