Doing a Job on the Planet

Commentary by Liza Field

Whose job is it to protect a working planet?

I don’t mean just a few industries, but the water, biodiversity and atmosphere that supply all means of employment. Who should protect them? Government? Private sector? Volunteers?

“God,” says Congressman John Shimkus, R-Illinois.

Newly chairing the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on “Environment and the Economy,” Mr. Shimkus says the “environment” isn’t mankind's business, period. “Earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over.”

“Do I believe in climate change?....Yes,” Shimkus concedes. “The climate is changing. The question is more about the costs and benefits and trying to spend taxpayer dollars on something that you cannot stop.”

Shimkus locates this rationale in Genesis, quoting God's promise to Noah: “Never again will I destroy all living creatures.”

Should humans, then, destroy them?

Many Christians counter that Noah’s very job was to save—not eliminate—endangered species.

But that work doesn't yield a profit we recognize. Protecting planetary life isn't private enterprise. Therefore, it's nobody's job, according to the actual right-wing creed—faith in the unregulated free market.

As Milton Friedman articulated, the only job of private enterprise is to increase its own profits. And the only job of government is to protect private enterprise.

Water Works

Which enterprise, you wonder? What if one enterprise ruins others?

This question has long quagmired stakeholders of the Chesapeake Bay.

Draining motor oil, sediment, detergents and fertilizers from six Eastern states, their lawns, cows and kitchen sinks, the Bay has accumulated a “dead zone” deprived of oxygen, aquatic life and a former fishing industry.

What to do? Bay fishermen can't exactly slosh their way up the various tributaries, point crab-nets at people's heads and force a cleanup. Nor can one lone state handle the repair job.

“Maryland cannot restore the bay on its own,” said Bob Summers, acting secretary of Maryland’s Department of the Environment. “We need other states to do their jobs.”

Some conservative leaders disagree. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, an industrious promoter of big-energy interests, would prefer a “voluntary” approach to Bay protection, power plant emissions and other Environmental Protection Agency mandates.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has even drafted House legislation to strip funding from the EPA’s Bay cleanup effort. Protecting water, Goodlatte believes, isn't the government's job.

Why wouldn't water-protection rank as public work? Because, by new-conservative logic, it's not private work.

That private interests should be our government’s only interest neatly hamstrings the term “public interest.” It’s how The Heritage Foundation (an “independent” think-tank generously funded by oil money) perennially depicts the EPA as public (private) enemy number one.

This mind-strangling logic is set adrift through our media like tangled fishnet. Spinning it, in fact, constitutes a booming industry, according to Thomas Frank, author of The Wrecking Crew.

After years researching this business during his stint at The Wall Street Journal, Frank described entire career tracks of lobbyists, “think tanks,” middlemen, PR firms and consultants—all hired to exploit or disable government for whichever private interests can afford the fee.

Among these consultants, Tim Phillips and Ralph Reed (former Christian Coalition creator) promote their private energy-clientele goals through their political advisees (like Virginia's Bob McDonnell and Bob Goodlatte). Thus, powerful public-private alliances are created, with good profits for the matchmaker.

It's a Job

To bless these untraditional marriages, Reed uses his Christian “grass-top” contacts (like Pat Robertson, Liberty University and Family Research Council) to warn evangelicals against the EPA's “cult of environmentalism” now committing “human sacrifice”—of jobs.

But which jobs, you wonder, get “sacrificed”? What if one kind of job already sacrifices others?

Robbing banks is a job. Drug cartels create jobs. Terrorists hired to poison America’s environment would have easy jobs.

In a working government, regulations impede these jobs because they wreck other jobs—not to mention lives.

The fact is, environmental protections create jobs.

That's the finding of conservative Republican Charles Cicchetti, an economist who's researched the topic throughout four decades: “The best stimulus we could do to the economy—in effect creating well over a million new jobs—is to get serious about environmental compliance.”

Why? Environmental protection takes work. It’s harder to raise chickens than steal them.

Big polluters, in fact, oppose regulations largely because regulations require more jobs. More jobs reduce profits for corporate owners.

But Cicchetti says polluters can afford it. While power-plant and oil-refinery emissions cost billions to economies downwind and downstream, these industries have been reporting record profits.

Ruining our nation's environment, then, does increase profits—temporarily, for a few. And repairing all that wreckage will amount to one huge job for the United States.

But shouldn't those who create the job, by free-market standards, pay for the work?

Liza Field teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor’s School and Wytheville Community College. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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