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Blogs / Professional Fellows Exchange Program / Politics & Environment

Politics & Environment

Veerappan Swaminathan

Dr Eban Goodstein illustrating the differences in the voting record on environmental policy between the Republican and Democratic party.

I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr Eban Goodstein (Director of Bard College Graduate Programs in Sustainability) who gave a lecture at the University of Tennessee. Given that we were in the thick of "political season", his lecture focused on how US politics affected environmental policy from the 70s till today.

My biggest takeaway was that Republicans and Democrats were not too different in their beliefs that the environment needed to be protected and that significant funding from Government was a necessary burden that needed to be borne. The key developments in this space were:

  • 1970s - Creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by President Nixon. Signing into law of Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.
  • 1980s - Toxic Release Inventory, Montreal Protocol
  • Early 1990s - UN Framework on Climate Change, Acid Rain control

If you found this unanimity surprising between the two parties, you are not alone. As it turns out, Conservatives were concerned about environmental conservation because there were numerous obvious environmental problems (air/water pollution), it affected the hunting & fishing industry, there was the sense of the need to care for God's creations and the connection between the great outdoors and manhood development was widely believed.

Fast forward to the late 90s and many of the first generation environmental problems (the problems that the average man on the street can see in his own backyard) were under control. All the problems that remained were those that needed scientific analysis to characterize and understand. Naturally, the rift began shaping up.

Dr Goodstein shared that two beliefs started shaping up in the Conservative movement:

  1. The problem is not as bad as the liberals say it is.
  2. Fixing the problem will cost too much.

Now over time, with the hardening of political positions and the view that compromise is weakness, these two beliefs have morphed into something more hardline as well:

  1. The "environmental problem" does not exist.
  2. Fixing the "imaginary problem" will wreck the economy.

Which is why today we are faced with the prospect for those from the Conservative movement denying Climate Change or its impacts despite pretty much the entire world (both scientific and not) accepting it. Dr Goodstein attributes part of this to the anti-elitism tradition within the American community, except the elitists today are no longer the rich nobles but rather scientists and science professionals.

As despairing as it sounds for those of us in the environmental movement, Dr Goodstein left us with some hope. He reckons that it is possible for a return to bipartisan leadership in the environmental sector provided both parties address the following areas:

  • Viewing protection of the environment as a matter of National Security. In fact, the Pentagon is already looking at security threats being caused by environmental change.
  • Viewing it as a matter of energy self-reliance, well aligned to the spirit of independence and freedom.
  • Viewing it as a requirement for business sustainability. In this regard, companies all over the world are making efforts of their own, independent of the government, to explore areas such as the Circular Economy. Perhaps policy will have to play catch-up.
  • An oppotunity to express American technology leadership in the green industry.

I found the session highly illuminating and particularly inspiring as I am involved in promoting the Circular Economy in Southeast Asia, having recently organized an innovation hackathon in 10 Southeast Asian Cities ( to discover business innovations towards a zero waste society. 

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