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The Environment is Always an Economic Boom: Debating the Rightwing

by Daniel Janett Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003 at 6:36 AM

The five rightwing arguments for downsizing ecology are criticized. "Ecological moderniza-tion triggers innovations, creates jobs, opens up export chances and lowers health costs.. In Switzerland per capital energy consumption could be reduced two-thirds.."

The Environment is Always an Economic Boom

Rightwing circles remove environmental concerns from the political agenda. The five most common arguments are not convincing.

By Daniel Janett

[This article originally published in the Austrian Weltwoche 46/03 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,

Daniel Janett, 35, is a sociologist and director of a political research group.]

Besides the glacial ice, the importance of environmental policy silently melts away. In the 2003 waste disposal program, the government and parliament plan twice as much savings or cuts as in public administration. Despite clear energy-savings and employment effects, the “Energy Switzerland” program will be drastically cut. Parties and interest groups attack the environmental compatibility test and the grievance law, the core elements of Swiss environmental policy, according to an OECD-study. More than a third of the Swiss Diat supports a motion to dissolve the bureau. State-supporting institutions are not endangered in their existence. The assembly brushed off proposals for more energy efficiency, renewable energy and an ecologizing of tax policy while the Avanti-initiative for billions in constructing highway networks was widely accepted. Parts of the media shoot sparrows with cannons in assailing environmental policy and its supporters. They weaken the population’s awareness of problems. In 1990 the environment was an important problem for 70 percent of Swiss voters according to the Gfs-Institute. In 2002, 18 percent rated the environment as a crucial problem.

Political themes also have their boom seasons. However the continuous degrading of ecology cannot be explained with the customary attention cycles. How should this degrading be explained? What are the arguments of the rightwing for downsizing environmental policy?

“An Environmental Policy isn’t Necessary”

Firstly, referring to environmental successes, the air and water have actually become cleaner. Switzerland has done pioneering work in the waste area. Ecology was institutionalized in administration and science. This is gratifying but not a reason to end environmental policy. Ozone, nitrogen oxide and particle dust damage the biosphere and cause health coasts of seven billion francs. The waters are exposed to pollution by hormones and chemicals. 95 percent of indigenous amphibian species, 80 percent of reptile species and 45 percent of birds are regarded as extinct or very endangered. A third of the soil has lower soil fertility owing to erosion, hardening and pollutants. Despite the recession, the consumption of fossil energies increased 8.9 percent.

On the global plane, bright environmental optimism is much less appropriate. Emissions of fuel gases threaten to destabilize the world climate. According to the UN environmental agency, 150,000 square kilometers of forest are destroyed annually. A species destruction of geological dimensions is underway. Wildernesses grow; around a third of worldwide fish stocks are destroyed. Water scarcity leads to explosive distribution battles in different regions of the world. Environmental stress increases in the South through population growth and industrialization and in the North through unparalleled waste. If all people lived like an average US-American, three more planets would be necessary to cover the global demand according to the World watch Institute.

“Everything is only Scare-mongering”

The alleged alarmism of eco-experts is a second argument for the devaluation of environmental policy. Some predictions of environmental research were actually wrong or over-dramatized. Isn’t this true for all political fields? Are economic prognoses always correct? That certain scenarios have not occurred because politics was mobilized and innovations broke through like waste-gas catalysors and gas filters is important. The doom prophesies of environmental researchers were often justified, for example the destruction of the essential stratospheric ozone layer by fuel gases. This problem was denied for years under the pressure of shortsighted competitive interests until an internationally coordinated chlorophlorocarbon reduction began in the middle of the eighties. If politics waits for hundred-percent causal proofs, it will be too late. This is true for the risks of climate change. These risks are obviously enough to justify a substantial defensive policy in the sense of the precautionary principle.

“Voluntariness is More Effective”

Thirdly, there is the argument of the bureaucratic clumsiness of state environmental policy and the supposedly higher efficiency of voluntary measures of the economy. The successes of Swiss environmental policy recognized abroad would never have been accomplished with voluntary measures alone. Not much can be expected from voluntariness as along as the press doesn’t say the ecological truth. According to an ETH-study, Switzerland will greatly miss the CO2 reduction goal through voluntariness if enforceable measures are not taken at once. Corporations jumping on the bandwagon made voluntary financing for disposing glass bottles and batteries impossible. Not much is possible as long as social prestige is measured by ownership of gas-guzzling four-wheel drive vehicles. Fuel reduction for subcompacts also cannot be expected from the voluntary commitments of car importers. Voluntary environmental protection cannot succeed without a legal framework that charges the costs of consumption of nature to the causal agents and motivates them to economical use of resources.

“Single-Handed Efforts are Useless”

Fourthly, there is the globality of many environmental problems. Given the worldwide environmental encumbrances, a special engagement of Switzerland is futile or pointless, it is said. The individual’s use of the environment depends on the conduct of others on a small and large scale. If everyone waits for the first step of the other, the overexploitation of collective environmental goods is unavoidable. On the global plane, this vicious circle can only be escaped with clear rules of the gamed that are internationally agreed and obligatory in national law. Nearly all countries of the earth ratified the 1987 multilateral ozone agreement. Why can’t a similar agreement be ratified for climate protection or protection of species if enough states champion this? The environment has been one of the five priorities of Swiss foreign relations since the world summit of Rio. As a member of the UN, the WTO, the World Bank and other international organizations, Switzerland has many possibilities for an active environmental foreign policy, for example promoting the rapid conversion of the Kyoto protocol for protecting the atmosphere, financing international projects in developing countries or supporting a world trade order that doesn’t contradict the principles of sustainability. Pioneering nation-state initiatives are indispensable. Small states like Sweden, Denmark or the Netherlands have profiled themselves in the last decades as pioneering ecological states and influence global policy. With their regulations, they have anticipated international solutions and their enterprises have gained competitive advantages.

“Environmental Protection is Too Expensive”

Fifthly and lastly, there are the costs. An engaged environmental policy simply cannot be financed given the continual growth crises, politicians and lobbyists complain. Certainly, ecological modernization is not free of charge. However ecological modernization also triggers innovations, creates jobs, opens up export chances and lowers environmentally caused health costs. According to the Federal office for statistics, the eco-industrial sector of Switzerland employed 50,000 workers in 1998 and had revenues amounting to 9.5 billion francs. According to the Berlin political scientist Martin Janicke, the environmental question is “an important dimension of the innovation competition between highly developed countries. A study of the World Economic Forum reveals a clear statistical connection between the competitiveness of a country and its environmental- and resource conservation policy.

Powerful interest groups consciously play down the economic benefit of ecological reconstruction. Renewable energy is one example. In Germany, this sector recently posted two-digit growth rates and employs more persons than the whole sphere of nuclear energy on account of its decentralized character according to the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. In Switzerland, per-capita energy consumption could be reduced two-thirds with the same quality of life according to an ETH-study. Appropriate technologies – from the zero-energy house and efficient subcompacts to materially efficient industrial production processes – are possible and offer disproportionate growth rates in the future. The Swiss have a series of products with excellent export chances. A model forecast expects a Swiss export volume of 2.3 billion Euros per year up to 2010 in energy efficiency and renewable energy. A new study of the ETH and the Paul Scherrer-Institute shows that thousands of jobs could be created in the private sector with domestic climate protection measures where small and medium businesses could profit.

The sickly economy and the crisis of public finances are not arguments to ignore environmental policy. Ecological modernization is not opposed to long-term prosperity but rather one of its central prerequisites. Instead of repressing environmental problems, we should give them a proper place on the political agenda again. Sustainable development isn’t a cranky idea of enemies of progress out of touch with reality but an indispensable reform project of the emerging world society that promotes innovation in every way.

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