'I don't expect largescale policy initiatives in the environmental sector'

JONATHAN LASH heads the Washington-based World Resource Institute (WRI) and is the co-chairperson of the Presidential Commission on Sustainable Development. Lash came to New Delhi in November 1994 to release The Second India Revisited, a WRI study examining the environmental stress caused by the lopsided economic growth model of India and ANUPAM GOSWAMI found him sombre about the just-concluded US Congressional elections. However, Lash maintained the interpretation that the results marked a shift to the conservative Right was only partially true. More important for him was that "people are sick of government in general, and environmental leaders in the United States must understand that the public would be very reluctant towards any initiative that is premised on substantial government action". Excerpts from an interview:

 
By Anupam Goswami
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

How would you define and explain the mandate of the President's Commission on Sustainable Development?
Well, I think the Commission sustains on a mandate rooted in relationship between business and environmental NGOs in America. Both are now inclined to identify areas in which certain common programmes can be explored. This change has attracted the chief executives of the largest companies as well as NGO heads to the Commission. The broader favour with which this changed attitude has been received, is reflected in the fact that the Commission also has labour organisation representatives, native Americans and other social groups.

A political mandate is also evident, as members of the President's Cabinet are also included in the Commission -- it enjoys very close and active participation of vice- president Al Gore. So, while the President does not directly control the Commission, he does have a very important stake in it.

The recent US congressional elections have thrown up so much talk about the muddled initiatives of the Clinton administration. How would you defend the Commission?
I would once again draw attention to the Commission's constituents. If it can reach agreement on a collaborative set of recommendations, that itself will have an enormous impact, because such interest groups have never come together before. Also, through our report where we aim to develop a vision of sustainable development of the us, it will hopefully be the beginning of a broader debate towards that objective.

Anything more concrete?
I'm more optimistic. We will offer short-term policy recommendations for the administration. Then we shall identify measurable mileposts for ways of sustainable development. These would cover transport, energy, natural resource management, population and the like. Our traditional measurements of economic growth exclude the environment factor. We would have established new ways of realising these measurements and information. This would not be theoretical, but in everyday business terms, which is quick and easy to follow and employ.

Moreover, I must also point out that this Commission is in the initial phase. Before I became co-chairperson of the President's Commission on Sustainable Development, I chaired the Superfund Commission which drew up companies for waste dumping by implementing the laws better.

All those involved -- the industry, consumer rights organisations, environmental leaders, community leaders, lawyers -- suspected each other in the beginning. But we created a mechanism where nobody could evade responsibility. Thus, the chief executives of corporations in the commission could send substitute executives from their management departments. After a year, we had the most remarkable model for environmental pollution liabilities. But the bad news was that the legislation representing the SuperFund's work was not passed, because by then, functioning within the Congress had become very acrimonious. It went to the Senate floor simply to die.

Surely there is a lesson in that somewhere? If President Clinton seeks reelection, or the Democrats at the next presidential elections, do you think they would find the public much impressed with the work of the Commission?
If you talk in measurable percentages of the electorate, I doubt the impact of the Commission. After all, we are talking about things that genuinely affect people, and are emerging as their actual concerns.

By the next presidential elections, I think the discussions and recommendations of the Commission on Sustainable Development would have impressed a group which makes or shapes decisions in the government or in the private sector.

Wouldn't the crucial question be whether this supposedly impressed group shows up politically? Could you see any signs of it in the just concluded elections?
No. Environment was not an issue at the elections. Just as foreign policy was not. The issue was a general sense of growing insecurity among the people -- even though we have come out of recession. The middle class no longer feels secure about their future and their jobs. When a youngster graduated from the university, he or she could be certain of a job; that is no longer the case. People do not see any government addressing these problems.

Does this insecurity lead directly to a popular search for more sustainable and secure living? Would the people help build a larger social and public base for environmental projects like yours?
Specifically with respect to the environment, there will be a reluctance to adopt solutions involving greater governmental interventions. I think the majority of the people right now love environment and hate the government. So, I would not expect to see largescale policy initiatives in the environmental sector.

What would this imply for the environmental NGOs?
Well...I am not trying to avoid answering. I think it seeks a sophisticated answer.

Just looking at the members of environmental NGOs in the US, and their fund-raising success, it shows clearly that the past 2 years have been pretty bad. There was enormous rise in their membership between 1988 and 1992. Yet, I would argue that this is in no way suggests a decline in public concern about environmental issues and environmental values. I would not expect any dramatic upsurge in the memberships, or their influence in elections. Nonetheless, I feel that their point will receive increasing recognition.

Will this recognition be uniform across the board? What are the shades of the environmental constituency in the US?
There is certainly a Left-wing among the environmental constituency in the US. This group probably identifies itself more with groups like Greenpeace or Earth First. They probably disagree with many things I say about changing corporate attitudes to the environment.

But environmental concerns evoke response from a much more broadbased middle class constituency as well.

Do you think that future presidents will keep this constituency in mind and not disband the present Commission which you co-chair?
I think so. There is a tremendous desire in the United States to find something beyond conflict-oriented politics and resolution of longstanding problems. I am confident that the Commission would show that this is possible and achievable.

But on the other hand you do claim a distrust of governments...
No! I do not distrust governments. I have myself spent 6 years running environmental programmes for the state of Vermont and have developed a healthy respect for the limits and potential of governments.

Governments work well when they have clear mandates. If we ask too much of governments, they simply fail. If people in the United States want lower taxes, no budgetary deficits and, still want all the social security benefits to continue -- with enhanced health care -- there is no way any government can measure up to their expectations.

There is another point as well. There is great flowering of the market at the end of the 20th century. Even I have learnt that markets are very efficient at allocating resources for production. On the other hand, I also know that markets are very ill-efficient at allocating resources for the protection of the environment, or to help them. Making these decisions is the role of governments. But always governments will need clear public guidance about these decisions.

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