Reactions to Environmental Regulation

In the 1980s, a backlash against the 1970s regulatory era developed, in which environmental quality standards were relaxed. Under the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), policies evolved that allowed industries to play a much greater role in regulating themselves than was the case in the 1970s. The EPA and OSHA suffered severe budget cuts, and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) became a minor player in comparison to its strength during the 1970s. In a controversial move, made shortly after Reagan took office in 1981, the new president appointed James Watt as Secretary of the Department of the Interior and Anne Gorsuch as director of the EPA, both of whom were associated with corporate interests that had lobbied for reduced regulations. Anti-environmentalist rhetoric developed by the Republicans and the party's Christian right wing pervaded the administration. Watt, first president of the conservative, anti-environmental Mountain State Legal Foundation (1977), funded by Joseph Coors, Sr. of the Coors Brewing Company, argued for the wise use of the environment. In 1981, he stated, "my responsibility is to follow the scriptures which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns. I don't know how many generations we can count on before the Lord returns."3 In the early 1990s, Republicans accused California democrat Barbara Boxer of holding the view that "spotted owls are higher on the food chain than we are."4 Anti-environmental forces, therefore, had far greater influence on environmental policy under the Republican administrations of the 1980s and early 1990s than in the 1970s.

Industry also reacted to increased environmental regulation, because the additional costs reduced profits. Economists Daniel Faber and James O'Connor, in a 1989 article entitled "The Struggle for Nature," argued that "Environmental regulations added to the costs of capital but not to revenues____ [P]ollution abatement devices and clean-up technologies usually increase costs, hence, everything else being the same, reduce profits, or increase prices."5 Large amounts of capital investment were required on the part of corporations to comply with the new regulations. The highest capital investments occurred in industries involved in oil, mining, electricity, and metallurgy, as well as in electrical plants operated by coal and nuclear power. In 1980, it was reported that the United States had spent $271 billion between 1972 and 1979 on pollution abatement. Much of that went into Clean Air Act enforcement. Corporations began to displace those costs onto the public, raising the prices of consumer commodities. Additionally, they displaced wastes onto landfills, inner city neighborhoods, and toxic waste dumps, and began exporting wastes to the Third World. The legislative victories of the environmental movement in the 1970s came back as a financial and ideological reaction, leading to failures in environmental regulation in the 1980s. As a result, they argue, pollution is now much worse and toxic waste sites more abundant in many areas, such as Indian reservations, inner cities, and throughout the Third World. There are also higher levels of dangerous chemicals such as nitrates, arsenic, and carcinogens in the environment than before.

Environmental Organizations

At the same time that regulations were being relaxed under the Reagan administration of the 1980s, citizens were responding to the policies of Watt and Gorsuch by increasing donations to mainstream environmental organizations. The "Group of Ten," or the ten major environmental organizations, experienced growth as cutbacks in environmental enforcement spearheaded private contributions to their organizations, increasing their budgets and memberships. Invigorated by financial gains and energized by the need to press for continued environmental regulation, they began to focus their main efforts in Washington as lobbyists and lawyers.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) constructed a $40 million building and added some 8,000 new members a month in the early 1980s, while the Sierra Club increased from 80,000 to 500,000 members. The National Resources Defense Council doubled its numbers in the 1980s. As the mainstream organizations received more donations from their new members, they also began to forge alliances with corporations.

By 1988, the National Wildlife Federation had a budget of $63 million, much of its funding coming from corporations such as Amoco, Arco, CocaCola, Dow, Dupont, Exxon, and Waste Management, and an executive from Waste Management was placed on the board of directors, moving the NWF closer to corporate interests. Other environmental organizations showed similar patterns. The National Audubon Society's 1988 budget was $38 million, with many donors coming from the same corporations. The Sierra Club, with a budget of $19 million, was receiving funding from Coca-Cola, Pepsi, petroleum companies, and major banks. Studies show that many members of environmental groups come from the corporate world and were wealthy persons who wanted the benefits of the Sierras for hiking; at the same time, ironically, they were involved in the management of companies whose activities destroyed those opportunities.6

One result of the "Group of Ten" environmental organizations' Washington focus was a tendency to neglect local issues. In the 1980s, therefore, in conjunction with the efforts of the "Group of Ten" in Washington, grassroots organizations sprang up throughout the country in response to local environmental problems.

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