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Clearing the Air: The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution

Bruce Yandle

From the mid-1960s on into the early 1980s, it seemed obvious: Were it not for the benevolent protection provided by the federal government, America’s smoke-filled cities and slime-ridden rivers would have become environmental wastelands. The caves were beckoning. Somehow simultaneously struck dumb, citizens by the millions happily traded the last smidgen of clean air for yet one more Pontiac GTO, another hula-hoop factory, or a chemical plant producing Agent Orange.

“Whose garden was this?” Tom Paxton’s lovely song asked. How could people allow themselves to slip to the edge of environmental disaster? “Woe be unto us. Externalities overwhelm us; the markets have failed.” This was the response from the freshly minted environmentalists and ever-apt politicians. The 1970 Clean Air Act then took possession of the filthy commons and cleared the air. Clean-water legislation gave similar protection to the poisoned rivers and shores. The race to the bottom ended. We now live happily ever after, forever in the debt of far-sighted Earth Day celebrants.

Thank heavens for federal command-and-control regulation!

In this powerfully documented book, Indur Goklany, formerly chief of the technical assessment division of the national Commission on Air Quality, does fatal damage to that story. Focusing on air pollution, he provides a totally different rendering. With meticulous attention to detail, Goklany carefully straps together disparate series of data on air emissions and air quality, examining each of the “criteria pollutants”—things determined harmful like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and suspended particulates. He demonstrates that Americans were not struck environmentally dumb in the 1960s, 1950s, and before. No, it was just the reverse. When scientific knowledge and data showed environmental harm was in the offing, people in communities took positive action to protect the valuable biological envelope that sustains human life.

The timing of the “period of perception,” which understandably varies for different pollutants, is a crucial part of his theory of environmental human action. Once costly health problems are perceived and income allows it, Goklany’s “period of transition” arrives. This is the time when action is taken to limit further environmental degradation. Recognizing the complexities of the institutions that arose, Goklany’s assessment examines data and trends that reach back as far as the nineteenth century. The data are compelling. Reductions in the concentration of each criteria pollutant begin well before the federal period.

Goklany provides almost exhaustive treatment of city ordinances, county regulations, and state legislation that were designed to clear the air. Unfortunately, he pays little attention to the significant role played by common law protection of environmental rights, which is the one fault I find with the book. Those bent on direct federal regulation generally neglect common law, and the book would have been more complete if Goklany had ventured into the field.

Clearing the Air supports the conclusion that when incomes are high enough, intelligent human beings will find ways to protect themselves from environmental harms, especially those of their own making. Rigorous and interesting discussion is given to the relationship between income and environmental quality, which when displayed graphically is called an environmental Kuznets curve (EKC). In recent years, EKCs, typically showing a period of environmental decay and then recovery, have become an artifact of environmental economics. But they have not been associated with a well-articulated theoryof human action. Goklany’s presentation showing how perception of a problem and transition generate EKCs remedies this shortcoming.

The book concludes with a carefully drawn and sad assessment of the federal regulatory experience. One part of the unpleasant outcome is related to the following facts: (1) Command-and-control regulation has been excessively costly, relative to performance standards or use of economic incentives. (2) Federal programs unduly limit state action in the name of controlling interstate pollution when much of the problem is intrastate. (3) There are profitable risk-reducing opportunities for increasing the level of control for some pollutants and decreasing the level for others. The second part of the unhappy result relates to the central finding of the book: Significant progress in controlling air pollution occurred in the absence of federal programs whenever problems were perceived and incomes allowed for action to be taken. If left to state, local, or private action, at least part of the cost of the federal saga could have been avoided and some of the benefits expanded.

Those looking for a polemic on the evils of big government and inefficiencies of federal programs will be disappointed with this book. It is not a polemic. It is a carefully researched report on the nation’s experience with air pollution control and how the pre-federal and post-federal periods compare. Goklany’s excellent treatise tells us that the pre-1970 decentralized approaches were working rather well. Markets were not failing. Externalities were not ubiquitous. In spite of this, political environmentalism was on the rise. Free-market environmentalism was forced to give ground. Now is the time to reverse the forces.

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