Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#297 - What Works -- Part 2: How To Terminate Business As Usual, 04-Aug-1992

In a very real sense, the system cannot reform itself. The business
organizations that are destroying the planet as a place suitable for
human habitation cannot do the right thing EVEN WHEN A MAJORITY OF
THEIR MEMBERS WANT TO. These organizations have narrowly-defined goals,
which are embedded in the corporate charter (the legal document that
creates a corporation and gives it legal standing in the community).
Chiefly, business organizations exist to return a profit to their
investors and managers, and this goal eclipses all others. As the
Business Council for Sustainable Development said recently, "Business
enterprises exist to generate wealth by adding value," and "The basic
goal of business must remain economic growth."[1]

It is ironic that even the leaders of the world's largest business
organizations no longer believe that "business as usual" is
sustainable. In a joint declaration earlier this year, the presidents
of Dow Chemical, Du Pont, BFI and about 50 other large companies said,
"Continued economic development now depends on radical improvements in
the interactions between business and the environment. This can only be
achieved by a break with 'business as usual' mentalities and
conventional wisdom, which sideline environment and human concerns."[2]

In sum, the planet is being destroyed as a place suitable for human
habitation by individuals who do not want to destroy it but who cannot
help themselves because they are caught up in organizations whose
narrow goals take precedence over their own personal ethics and
aspirations. Furthermore, even the leaders of these organizations don't
believe they can continue their usual patterns of behavior for long.
They explicitly recognize that the world industrial system is not

Thus a key question emerges: How can the self-propelling, destructive
behavior of these organizations be changed? The lives and the well
being of our children depend upon finding an answer, and fairly soon.

For at least two decades now, the environmental movement has been
working to reform the behavior of business people, particularly "big
business" people. (This focus on corporate reform has not always been
explicit, but since pollution largely stems from corporate decisions,
anti-pollution activism is, at bottom, always an attempt at corporate
reform.) The question is, what works? As we look back on two decades of
our labors, what successes can we point to? What strategies have shown
promise, and what tactics have borne fruit?

A new organization, the Environmental Exchange, just 18 months old, has
begun to catalog the successes of the environmental movement, and their
first report is just out. WHAT WORKS REPORT NO. 1; AIR POLLUTION
SOLUTIONS examines a broad range of ideas and projects that are are

The authors have broken the subject into the following categories:

Fighting Smog

--transforming transit

--curbing cars

--boosting bikes

--controlling smog from stationary sources

Tackling Air Toxics

--reducing industrial toxic emissions

--local laws attack toxics

Saving the ozone layer

--phasing out ozone depleters

--local laws ban CFCs

Air pollution education

--hands-on activities

--curriculum development

The report offers a series of stories about communities that have
forced change to happen. "Rather than waiting for government
directives, people are directing their own efforts to save the earth."
In this, "...they reflect the common sense spirit of initiative that is
essential to solving our environmental problems."

Take Portland, Oregon. In the 1970s, Portland violated clean air
standards one day out of every three. Local government began by placing
a cap on downtown parking; then they stopped putting money into
widening or building roads into downtown Portland, putting the money
instead into mass transit. They built a light-rail system now known as
Max. Result: downtown employment has increased from 60,000 to 90,000
since the early 1970s, and 43% of all commuters now use mass transit.
Air pollution violations are near zero, urban sprawl has diminished,
and more than $400 million has been invested in new developments near
the transit line.

In addition to success stories, WHAT WORKS REPORT NO. 1 offers useful
facts, such as these: light rail costs $10-$20 million per mile to
build; a highway costs $100 million per mile to build; one rail track
can move as many people as an 18-lane highway; since 1971, 750,000
Americans have been killed in automobile accidents; train wrecks have
killed 63 passengers during the same period.

Now we move to Cloverleaf, Texas. In 1990, LaRoche Industries proposed
to put a 105,000-gallon ammonia storage facility in Cloverleaf. Just a
few months earlier, a 3000-gallon tank truck of ammonia had crashed and
ruptured on a Houston freeway, killing seven people, hospitalizing 50,
and requiring evacuation of 1000 others. The company's application for
an air pollution permit argued that Cloverleaf was a good spot for
their tank because the community consisted mainly of "small poorly
maintained houses... small junky businesses... and very low quality
housing." Community residents wanted to know why LaRoche considered it
more "appropriate" for them to bear the risks than their higher-
salaried neighbors. Community residents and members of the group Texans
United attended the first meeting of the Texas Air Control Board armed
with posters showing enlarged reproductions of the offensive language
in the application. "The Air Control Board officials flew into our
first meeting expecting to smooth things over with a few fearful
homeowners," says community leader Karla Land. "But when they looked
around the hall and saw those posters, they knew they'd walked into a
hornet's nest of organized opposition. The Board seemed a little
stunned, promised to consider our objections, and headed back to
Austin." The Air Board subsequently denied the application, the first
denial in the Board's history.

As you read WHAT WORKS REPORT NO. 1, you will see that what works is:

** angry, ORGANIZED communities;

** constant watchdogging by citizens of permit applications and
compliance records;

** bad publicity for polluters;

** a growing awareness among business people that waste reduction saves

** lawsuits to recover damages, or the threat of such lawsuits or, in
some cases, the mere POSSIBILITY of such lawsuits;

** evidence of pollution, especially evidence on video tape;

** someone to raise the initial question, why should we take this

** local laws stricter than state or federal laws;

** laws (local, state and federal) that require companies to produce
data about their pollution, so they no longer operate on an honor
system but are publicly accountable to the community;

** relentless citizen pressure, which can topple the most recalcitrant
corporate or government adversary.

These are what works.

It is interesting to compare this list to a similar list drawn up by
the Business Council for Sustainable Development. What does the
Business Council say works?

** The threat of government regulation. (But they say this doesn't work
well: As the Business Council notes, "Business has favored regulation
in the past because it also is more familiar with this approach, and
feels it can influence it through negotiation. In addition, in many
nations regulations are passed but rarely enforced.")

** Solicited voluntary initiatives. President Bush has used this
tactic, asking America's largest polluters to voluntarily reduce the
quantities of poison they release. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of
this request cannot be evaluated objectively because the U.S.
government collects no data on its own but, instead, relies entirely on
self-reporting by industry.

** Required disclosure of environmental effects; for example, in the
U.S., the Toxics Release Inventory requires certain industries to
disclose the nature and amount of their emissions; this works because
it "allows the public to see the records and act accordingly; it ranks
companies; and it demonstrates waste to boards of directors."

** Public pressure or public esteem: industries operate with an implied
contract with the public and "loss of confidence cannot long be

** Peer pressure: "Leading companies are adopting sustainable
development charters, which puts pressure on others to do likewise."

** A common view of common threats: business people inhabit the same
planet as everyone else and don't want to wreck it.

** Consistency of behavior by multinational corporations--cleanup of a
U.S. facility forces cleanup of a subsidiary in El Salvador or South
Asia, the Business Council says. (pgs. 20-21)

What's missing from the Business Council's list is direct confrontation
with angry, ORGANIZED communities; local laws stricter than state or
national laws; lawsuits for money damages or the threat of such
lawsuits; and restrictions written into the corporate charter. These
are what REALLY works.

--Peter Montague


[1] Stephen Schmidheiny and the Business Council for Sustainable
DEVELOPMENT AND THE ENVIRONMENT (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992).

[2] Schmidheiny, cited above, pg. 82.

[3] Mark Malaspina, Kristin Schafer, and Richard Wiles, WHAT WORKS
REPORT NO. 1; AIR POLLUTION SOLUTIONS (Washington, D.C.: Environmental
Exchange, June, 1992). 111 pgs. Available from: Environmental Exchange,
1930 18th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20009. Tel.: (202) 387-2182; $17
and worth it.

Descriptor terms: business council for sustainable development;
sustainable development; environmental exchange; environmental laws;
portland, or; mass transit; cloverleaf, tx; laroche industries;
ammonia; or; tx; air pollution;