TCS Daily

Maine's Man

By Jon Reisman - April 21, 2004 12:00 AM

President Bush is coming to Maine to give an Earth day address on the environment. It's an important issue in this battleground state. The President has been heavily and sometimes hysterically criticized by environmentalists for seemingly everything he does or doesn't do, from new mercury reduction rules and judicial nominations to not playing proper obeisance to the United Nations and international global warming treaties.

Fundamental differences over economics, politics and religion are fault lines that closely divide the country. Those differences are starkly visible in environmental policy. There may be near unanimous agreement on desiring good stewardship and sustainability of natural and human resources, but there is no agreement on what exactly that might mean in practice.

One side favors market capitalism and limited government over greater public ownership and control of the economy. The other favors a greater emphasis of community over individual, with community also including other species and the physical environment. Some favor technological optimism and innovation over pessimism and precaution. There is also a split that is essentially religious in nature; for some, environmentalism has become a spiritual value system that provides the comforts, community and even the certitude of faith.

In 2000, Al Gore received votes from a plurality of Americans who apparently agreed with his assertion that protecting the environment should be the central organizing principle of our society. For some reason, a small but decisive number of Americans who strongly believed in that principle chose to vote for Ralph Nader. President Bush was elected by the votes of Americans who demurred. Some thought that perhaps freedom was a better choice for a central value.

In a series of initiatives and decisions that took more than 7 years and 11 months to happen, the Clinton administration left a few political land mines for President Bush in the form of proposed rules and decisions on arsenic, mercury, public lands, endangered species, clean air and clean water. The initiatives looked to take political advantage of a well-known foible of American public opinion: we want a clean environment, but we don't want to pay for it. Thus for instance, New England wants to reduce mercury and greenhouse gas emissions from Midwestern coal plants, but New England doesn't want to pay for it, and for some unknown reason, neither does the Midwest. Whatever President Bush did on these matters would not be helpful to his reelection chances.

President Bush has pursued an environmental policy based on several core principles that many environmentalists do not share. Those principles include the following:

  • Wealth makes health. Growing successful economies are essential to environmental quality because they provide both the means and the desire to protect the environment. The worst environmental problems are in the third world; the cleanest environments and highest longevity are in developed countries.
  • Socialism is not sustainable. Policy prescriptions which decrease private ownership and control of the economy (capitalism) are not consistent with economic growth and will ultimately decrease both environmental quality and human well being.
  • Good stewardship is based on facts not fears. Careful cost and risk-benefit benefit analysis should govern decision making, as opposed to emotional fear mongering designed to "sex up" the case for aggressive intervention. The standard environmental policy agenda setting procedure is to hype worst case scenarios and focus on the affects on children and seniors.
  • Technological innovation and entrepreneurship are critical for human progress. Policies that discourage prudent risk taking and new technologies out of excessive risk aversion and/or fear of technology (the precautionary principle) should not be adopted. Requiring that new technologies prove their safety first means no new technologies and condemns much of humanity to poverty and hopelessness.

President Bush is very unpopular with the environmental left because he is promoting policy based on capitalism, markets and sound science rather than socialism, regulation and religion. The partisan split on environmental policy is a regrettable but unavoidable consequence of the deep divisions in the country. It may be that this November environmentalists will replace Jewish Americans as the most reliably Democratic religious group.

Jon Reisman teaches environmental policy at the University of Maine at Machias. He is also a Maine Public Policy Institute scholar and contributor to


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