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Report Paints Disturbing Picture of Business Establishment's Goals
Published on Sunday, April 15, 2001 in the Boulder Daily Camera
Report Paints Disturbing Picture of Business Establishment's Goals
by Meir Carasso
 
The Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. corporations, released a report earlier this year titled "Blueprint 2001: Drafting Environmental Policy for the Future." This was their "environmental policy agenda for the next administration and Congress." Here are some highlights:

"Traditional tools applied by regulators are no longer adequate...", The Business Roundtable says. "The cornerstone of the blueprint is the concept of sustainability." It sounded encouraging. Before I get my hopes too high, I thought, I'd better check in what way they use this word, "sustainability." I looked up the home page of TBR and there it was: "The Business Roundtable has a single objective — to promote policies that will lead to sustainable long-term growth in the US economy." The concept of sustainability, however, calls for policy options "that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs " ("Our Common Future," World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) . TBR's single-minded objective, in contrast, is simply to promote U.S. economic growth, period. A very different kind of sustainability, wouldn't you say?

The report outlines four broad aspects of environmental policy advocacy: investment in "high quality" science and technology, "managing for performance," using "market-driven" approaches, and promoting "sustainability principles in a global context."

Asking government to invest in "high quality" science and technology is consistent with a longtime goal of business — to have government-funded new technology and "science-driven policy." It advocates that until there is sufficiently incontrovertible scientific evidence that a certain process, product, or business practice is harmful to people's health, there should be no regulatory policy restricting business in any way. But calling for "science-driven policy" is the same mantra that has been used by business to stifle regulation of tobacco (cancer), coal mining (black lung), and nuclear radiation (cancer). In a letter reversing his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, George W. Bush claimed an "incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of ...climate change" as a reason for the flip-flop.

While "science-driven policy" in itself sounds reasonable, the clincher here is that scientific knowledge is typically incomplete and involves uncertainty. Business says: Don't regulate us until you, the government, have in hand all the scientific facts.

This is a cynical request because having scientific cause-and-effect evidence that traces the consequences of a given process or product all the way to general health impacts is very, very difficult to do, particularly when information is business-proprietary. In the past, it has taken decades after major damage has been done and, at times, as was the case with tobacco, the testimony of a whistle-blower.

Practically speaking, following this prescription delays policies that would otherwise save lives and prevent irreversible environmental damage. An alternative approach that cares for people is to guide policy by using the "precautionary principle." It says that prudent regulation should go hand in hand with any substantial perception of public risk, in parallel to the development of scientific evidence. It's a serious distinction.

The Business Roundtable next advocates that EPA and other regulatory agencies "create a new culture of performance-based management." Business would like to see less regulation, and more definition, measurement of, "rewards" for achieving desired environmental goals.

But in the very next paragraph, TBR admits that "Traditional ... programs assure a uniform level of environmental performance ... [that] these approaches have worked well ... and should backstop future environmental protection efforts." The bottom line seems to be that business wants to have it both ways: incentives, rewards and regulatory flexibility, but also "backstop regulation," just in case. Here TBR falls just short of asking government to subsidize business for complying with environmental laws.

The next advocacy of The Business Roundtable is to "use market-driven approaches" to accomplish environmental goals. This did not come as a surprise. Presidential candidate George W. Bush, in a speech on June 9, 2000, announced that his "vision" for government was guided by the principle that "...Government should be...whenever possible, market based."

This theme is particularly strange in the context of environmental policy, since there is no market for industrial pollution. Business would like to get rid of it, certainly "sell" it if it could, but there is nobody to "buy" it. Just what is it TBR is asking for by "market-driven approaches...[and] in advance of formal regulatory action," specifically? TBR glibly points to "...approaches like marketable permits and tradable emission credits."

Sounds big, but to my knowledge, there are currently only two instances where trading of emission credits is taking place: SOX (sulfur oxides) in the Northeast, and NOX (nitrogen oxides) in southern California. In addition, the notion that this kind of "market-based" trading can be had "in advance of formal regulatory action" sounds bizarre because emission credits, by definition, can be had only after regulatory emission standards have been established to begin with.

TBR begins its final section by talking about "promoting sustainability principles in a global framework," and saying nice things about the significance of environmental and social values in U.S. trans-national relations. This portion of the report appears to be the "crown jewels" of what business wants in the global setting. TBR would like its recommendations to be nothing short of "a top priority for the new administration. The president should initiate ..." etc.

After talking up the virtues of trans-national trade as the solution to virtually all the problems of the world, the report sharpens its aim. "Proposals to reshape... the World Trade Organization (WTO) so that trade agreements explicitly address environmental concerns would only create opportunities to restrict products or processes...on the basis of claimed dangers to health or the environment," TBR says.

Therefore, "global environmental concerns need to be addressed on their own merits, not by using trade liberalization pacts (read: transnational trade agreements) to pursue environmental objectives." The duplicity of what TBR wants stands out in its advocacy that "international environmental agreements should not limit national autonomy, except (emphasis mine) where mechanisms to coordinate actions among affected nations are needed to address environmental concerns that transcend national boundaries." Is TBR advocating a business oriented, global institution with power to override national autonomy? Finally TBR comes out with it: "The new administration should play a leadership role in maintaining the integrity of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a body devoted to...trading."

In summary, while playing a number of smoke-and-mirrors games with words and concepts, "The Business Roundtable has a single objective — to promote policies that will lead to sustainable long-term growth in the US economy," and don't let environmental, health, national boundaries or democratic principles, for that matter, stand in the way! Business wants the social costs of doing business to be externalized and borne by government, that is, by taxpayers, you and I, instead of internalizing them as their responsibility and a price they have to pay.

Jeffrey E. Garten, Dean of the Yale School of Management, in his 2001 book "The Mind of the CEO" sees clearly the folly of this kind of narrow, fixated business stance. On page 243, he asks: "To what extent are they (CEOs) aware that for capitalism and democracy to survive, society — including them — must find a way to ease the social costs of a free market economy?" Evidently, the CEOs who make up The Business Roundtable are not that aware.

(Meir Carasso received a Ph.D. degree in Engineering from the University of California in Berkeley. During his 33-year professional career, he worked for the U.S. and California governments and in private industry. He lives in Boulder and volunteers his time to selected projects.)

Copyright 2001 The Daily Camera

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