Environmental Policies: Can They be Beneficial for the Environment at the Cost of Economic and Personal Freedom?

Angela Zhu, Grade 11

The past decade has been recorded as the warmest in history, with global temperatures reaching dangerous highs (1). Smog coats the skies of many cities around the world, and factories continue to burn fossil fuels, sending various greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. To combat these devastating effects on the environment, governments globally have enacted environmental policies which seek to reduce dangerous environmental activity and promote sustainability. However, the success and efficiency of these programs has induced controversy amongst environmentalists and economists alike. 

The majority of current-day environmental policies were enacted in the time between 1960 and 1980, under a government branch established by President Nixon. Named the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), its main goal was to establish policies that reduce the environmental impacts of various products and actions (2). For example, the Clean Air Act, created in 1970, regulates the emission of air pollutants from sources like factories and vehicles (3). As these policies were enacted, more people began to view them as an economic burden since they often increased the costs of material and good production without increasing the quantity produced. This is concerning since Gross Domestic Product (GDP), commonly used as a measure of good economic status, can be impacted by the higher prices for production. Another concern with the environmental policies is their infringement on both economic and personal freedom (4). Government action that is too invasive will often result in negative consequences like lack of innovation, entrepreneurship, and productivity which are the backbone for promoting novel methods of sustainability. Additionally, the accumulation of property and wealth motivates workers and investors to contribute to the market. By infringing on the benefits of investing or entrepreneurship, a policy can stifle economic growth and also limit freedom of choice. In essence, environmental policies that negatively impact the economy or personal freedoms are not effective and can actually be detrimental to the environment (5).

The best environmental policies are those that promote sustainability on a personal front and also urge beneficial innovation and economic growth. However, the current policies that the government enacted are outdated, most of them having been created decades ago. For instance, the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, has caused great confusion pertaining to its guideline terminology, often using unspecific and inconsistently interpreted phrases like “navigable waters” and “pollutant”. The vague principles often allow certain offices to avoid federal interference while for others it can garner unneeded burdens. For example, in Virginia, the EPA overextended that storm water was a form of pollutant which would have cost millions of taxpayers dollars to treat (6). Evidently, the current and very outdated system doesn’t support productive innovation or investment which ultimately reduces the likelihood for sustainable practices.

In order to reform these policies, concrete scientific data must be used in conjunction with state-level action and very clear policy outlines.

With the scientific field providing evidence of processes that can be beneficial or negative to the environment, the government should consider science as a guide for aiding decision making. Regulatory laws have been created on the basis of scientific information like those pertaining to health risks for humans. However, science can also be a tool wielded by elite offices for shielding against opposition. Thus, it is imperative to use science not as a definitive answer but as a guideline for policy, ensuring that the policy creation is as democratic as possible (7).
One of the most important ways to promote innovation and an environmentally friendly convention is to target specific communities. This can be accomplished by tasking states with establishing their own policy standards that are tailored to their environment (8). One example of this already in effect is the Endangered Species Act in which most states have their own lists of animals and programs that focus on these species, increasing the efficiency of their conservation (9).

Lastly, establishing clear rules and regulations for the policy will not only reduce confusion or evasive strategies, but also promote innovation without completely stifling freedom. By pushing a standard onto certain products or manufacturing methods, people can seek more environmentally friendly goods and services at a reasonable price. Additionally, innovation is spurred when a challenge or rather a set baseline has to be fulfilled. For instance, since fishing caused many of the local species to dwindle, farmers turned to a new form of inland fish farming, aquaponics. The new method of fish farming utilized recycled water and the natural water filtering ability of plants to sustain itself (10). Evidently, innovation and productivity must occur for sustainable methods to be incorporated into production, and a clear policy can aid in spurring new ideas.

Since the establishment of environmental policies, there has been controversy over their benefit to both the environment and to personal and economic freedom. However, in order to truly benefit the environment, people need to be able to experiment and the economy cannot be hindered in terms of growth and productivity. Thus, in order for an environmental policy to truly be successful, the government needs to consult the people and provide them with the opportunity to find new ways to save our planet.

[1] M. McGrath, Climate change: Last decade confirmed as warmest on record. BBC News, (2020).
[2] W. Kepner, EPA and a Brief History of Environmental Law in the United States. United States Environmental Protection Agency, (2016).
[3] Summary of the Clean Air Act. United States Environmental Protection Agency.
[4] T. Koźluk and V. Zipperer, Environmental policies and productivity growth – a critical review of empirical findings. OECD Journal: Economic Studies 2014, 156-158 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1787/19952856
[5] T. Miller, et.al, Economic Freedom: Policies for Lasting Progress and Prosperity. 2020 Index of Economic Freedom, (2019).
[6] General VPDES Permit for Discharges of Stormwater from Construction activities. Virginia.gov, (2014).
[7] W. Kung, The Role of Science in Environmental Protection: Is the Development of Environmental Law Toward More Protective and Productive Way, or Distorted to Inequality, Through the Involvement of Science? APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, 1-5 (2009).
[8] J. Spencer, et al., Environmental Conservation Based on Individual Liberty and Economic Freedom. The Heritage Foundation, (2013).
[9] R. Pellerito, State Endangered Species Chart. Animal Legal and Historical Center, (2002).
[10] Aquaponics makes the most of water safely and naturally. Sea grant, (2011).


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