September 5, 2000 - From the September, 2000 issue

Entrepreneurial Environmentalism: Congressman Blumenauer Offers a New Approach

Today's environmental movement is increasingly stymied by political pressure and shrinking economic resources, and visionaries such as U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) are suggesting that the traditional environmental regulation model must be reevaluated. In the following excerpt from "Entrepreneurial Environmentalism: A New Approach for the New Millennium," Rep. Blumenauer claims an entrepreneurial approach may be necessary to make our communities livable.


Rep. Earl Blumenauer

"Our property seems to me the

most beautiful in the world. It

is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we are away from all the noise and dust."

This excerpt from an ancient letter to the King of Persia may be civilization's first articulation of our degradation of the environment. In the two millennia and more that have passed since then, we have sadly lost none of our ability to damage and degrade. In fact, the pace of degradation has accelerated, the nature of the threats have changed, and the issues and politics that surround them appear to be more complex than ever.

What has changed for the better is our growing awareness of the consequences of our behaviors and our understanding of the urgency of environmental problems. Now, at the end of the millennium, is a good time to take stock-to consider both where our environmental policy has been, and where it should go.

VI. Entrepreneurial Environmentalism

In the face of growing environmental needs, increasing public support for environmental protections, and the continued inability of the federal government to act, we need a third way, a new approach to environmental protection.

[A] serious, thoughtful approach has four components:

• An effort to craft comprehensive solutions, instead of piecemeal approaches;

• A preference for low-tech, "cheap and green" solutions;

• A focus on performance and results rather than regulations and requirements; and

• An emphasis on economic incentives and entrepreneurial attitudes.

A. Comprehensive Solutions

In the past, our focus on specific elements of pollution-air, water, and toxic waste-has resulted in a targeted and highly fragmented approach. We know how to deal effectively with pollution from specific points like smokestacks and effluent pipes, but we are much less effective in addressing the nonpoint sources of air and water pollution that are primarily responsible for today's environmental problems.

We are also learning that [modern] environmental problems [such as air and water pollution, vulnerability to storms, flooding, and traffic congestion] are not only deeply interrelated, crying out for integrated solutions, but also do not observe political boundaries. [A]n alternative to isolated fixes [is] a comprehensive approach that honors natural boundaries and consequences rather than political ones.

B. Cheap & Green

Cheap, green, low-tech solutions can stretch and multiply the impact of environmental programs and expenditures. Since the goal of the New Environmentalism is to create comprehensive solutions instead of piecemeal approaches, government can, in effect, reap multiple benefits from each dollar spent. Consider, for example, community-based efforts to plant more street trees. This nationwide movement, often held on Arbor Day, actively engages people in improving their neighborhoods. For some, it is simply a matter of beautification; street trees add an aesthetic, pleasing effect that increases over time. For others, trees enhance property values.

Trees also provide a number of other benefits as well [including reducing storm water runoff, providing natural filtration systems, saving energy by shading homes and businesses, increasing urban habitat for wildlife, cooling nonpoint source runoff during summer months and providing water storage during rainy periods]. Finally, changing the line of sight of neighborhood streets with street trees can actually change driving behavior, encouraging motorists to drive more slowly and responsibly.

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Thus, what started out as a simple beautification program by people who like trees has enhanced [quality of life in many ways].

C. Performance-Based Environmentalism

When the federal government initially established levels of environmental protection, it placed strong emphasis on setting regulatory standards and obtaining compliance through enforcement, [which] was entirely appropriate for the time .

Today, however, it is increasingly apparent that we need to be more flexible as we engage new partners and aim for greater progress in environmental protection. Factors such as uncertainty about regulations, problems with compliance and implementation of technology, and questions about whether companies will get full credit for their environmental initiatives can have the perverse effect of delaying program implementation, discouraging innovation, and eroding trust between parties.

In some cases, rigid adherence to an old standard, however appropriate at the time of its enactment, has the opposite of the intended effect. Today, it's important that we empower and reward environmentally sensitive enterprises and businesspeople who are willing to be held accountable for meeting or exceeding environmental standards. Their innovative approaches contribute to our solutions and free up scarce resources to regulate the less-responsible members of our society . Simply put, we need to keep our focus on what we want to achieve and give a freer hand to responsible players.

D. Entrepreneurial Solutions & Economic Incentives

Finally, a new approach to environmental regulation will require government to operate differently across the board, from innovative thinking to forging new working relationships. Setting aside the old emphasis on regulations means learning to work more collaboratively and to involve new partners-businesses, academic institutions, and community groups, to name a few-in the process. Focusing on performance and results rather than standards and regulations means de-emphasizing enforcement in favor of incentives, particularly economic ones.

Economic incentives are certainly not new. Unfortunately, the federal government often offers economic incentives for many activities that are simply environmentally undesirable. Until recently, for example, the federal government's tax on capital gains realized from the sale of residential property encouraged people to move into larger, more expensive houses and discouraged people from moving into smaller, less expensive accommodations. The Tax Payer Relief Act of 1997 eliminated capital gains for the vast majority of American homeowners, [and] anecdotal evidence suggests that people are already taking advantage of this opportunity by moving back to central cities, strengthening existing neighborhoods, and reducing the pressure for sprawl.

As we pursue entrepreneurial environmentalism, one of the most important changes we can make is to ensure that economic incentives produce the right behaviors. Government needs to present a consistent set of pricing signals at all levels. For example, why should hundreds of municipal water agencies across the country still provide discounts for high-volume consumption, when we are trying to conserve water resources?

The federal government's current funding formulas also send signals that skew important decision-making processes. For example, the federal government provides a higher dollar match to jurisdictions for roads than for transit systems . The federal government also contributes more funds to pave over creeks than to use nonstructural approaches that may be more effective and environmentally friendly.

The federal flood insurance system contains another seriously flawed price signal. The National Flood Insurance Program currently provides subsidized flood insurance for hundreds of thousands of people living in flood-prone areas, rather than charging actuarial rates.

Across the country, new partnerships are springing up that demonstrate how more entrepreneurial thinking can turn problems into solutions. In Portland, a significant portion of the new light rail line to the airport was funded by offering development rights along the line to the contractor. Encouraging the behaviors that society wants and discouraging those that are counterproductive is one of the most powerful, effective, and efficient ways to achieve environmentally desired objectives.

VIII. Conclusion

The elements for entrepreneurial environmentalism are all in place. Public support for environmental initiatives continues to be high, and public awareness of the number and complexity of environmental problems is growing. At the same time, much of the public is distrustful of "big government" and eager for smaller, more manageable efforts that make a difference at the local level.

Entrepreneurial environmentalism recognizes those shifts in public attitude, even as it understands the changing and intertwining role of government and business with citizens seeking solutions. It allows us to marshal our diminishing resources and make the best use of our partners' contributions and innovations. Above all, it allows us to focus on the results we want: making our families safer, healthier and more economically secure. In other words, [making] our communities more livable.

© Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College Environmental Law, 2000. This essay orginally appeared in Vol. 30, Number 1. Reprined with permission from Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.