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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Slugs and Dinosaurs

Why some industries drag their feet.

by Carl Pope

Trying to predict what President Bill Clinton will do on any given topic is a risky business. In June, for example, at a fund-raiser for Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the president told me the scientific evidence for the EPA's proposed clean-air standards was not as clear-cut as environmentalists and the agency were arguing. I thought he was undecided on the issue.

But on June 25 Clinton endorsed the standards, which dramatically reduce allowable levels of soot and smog in the air we breathe. Although he had been intensely lobbied by the Sierra Club, physicians, and Vice President Gore, his decision came as a surprise, especially to the coalition assembled against it by the National Association of Manufacturers. Even though Clinton had based his re-election campaign on protecting children's health, many did not expect him to actually make good on that promise.

At the same San Francisco fund-raiser, the president made an eloquent plea for strong action on global warming. "We must set firm standards and timetables," he said. "We must fundamentally remake America's transportation sector. Detroit's either got to stop making cars that burn oil, or start making very different cars that burn far less oil."

But, speaking in New York on the fifth anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit the day after his clean-air announcement, Clinton stiffed the rest of the developed world: he refused to commit the United States to firm timetables and the major technological changes it will take to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

There is more at work here than Clinton's inconsistency. As the United States blunders toward a green, sustainable economy, some decisions will be harder to make than others, especially as the potential losers in that new economy do everything they can to put off their day of reckoning.

American industries fall into three broad categories: Learners, Sluggards, and Dinosaurs. Learner industries have no intrinsic reason to fear a rapid transition to higher environmental standards, and can be coaxed along by social pressure and economic incentives. Among such industries are finance, electronics and computers, appliances, publishing and communications, specialty chemicals, biotech, and apparel. The loudly touted success of the 3M Corporation at saving money by treating pollution as economic "waste" shows an industry learning that it has nothing to fear and much to gain from sustainable practices. High-tech companies now realize that the pollution of Silicon Valley drinking water, while enormously expensive to clean up, would have been trivially cheap to prevent. These are the industries that speak the language of sustainable development, and with whom Clinton and Gore love to make common ground.

Sluggards are those industries that know better but find it hard to change. They have made good money plundering natural resources and making wasteful products, like the giant sport utility vehicles now lumbering out of Detroit. Like the Learners, the Sluggards have environmentally preferable--and maybe even economically attractive--technological options, but they've made huge investments in the wrong areas. They fear that moving to a sustainable economy could "strand" their capital, as has happened to many utilities saddled with moribund nuclear power plants.

Examples of Sluggards are agribusiness, pulp and paper, utilities, and bulk-chemical and automobile manufacturers. They say they're willing to accept a transition to greener technologies, but only on their own schedule, and without government regulation or elimination of subsidies. General Motors doesn't want to retool assembly lines that make popular fuel-hogs; DuPont doesn't want to stop producing old, toxic but profitable (and proprietary) pesticides; International Paper doesn't want to shut down mills dependent on chlorine bleaching.

The Sluggards' problem with sustainable development is that it conflicts with sustainable stock values. The EPA's new air standards, for example, accelerate the rate at which corporations must swap existing factories and technologies for new ones. The more technologically nimble among these industries--the Japanese automakers, for example, or Monsanto--are somewhat less hysterical about change, but many just can't bear to write off expensive physical plants and wasteful processes that keep making money--at the expense of the environment and public health.

Finally, there are the Dinosaurs, industries for whom environmental destruction is an intrinsic part of doing business. Oil-industry profits are measured in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions; coal companies dish out CO2 with a side of heavy metals; the smelting and refining industry releases highly toxic metals from inert ore into the environment; construction firms try to pave as much of the earth as they can.

In a sustainable economy there will still be fossil-fuel, mining, and paving companies; they'll just play a smaller role. They will be bit players in an economy dominated by solar power, tree-free paper, and companies producing cars and other consumer goods from reused and recycled material. For the Dinosaurs, a clean, green future is a death sentence--hence their resistance.

Forced to choose between Sluggard industries and public health, Clinton opted for health, although granting polluters more time to meet the new air standards. They aren't happy, but Clinton knows they can adapt.

But dealing with global warming means taking on the Dinosaurs. That fight is too big for the president alone, but not for the nation's citizen activists, who know that their children's future will remain in doubt as long as Dinosaurs dominate the earth.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


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