American environmental policy: “The ‘good-enoughism’ that characterizes the last 50 years should be replaced with policies that truly work” – An interview with Daniel Press


We talk to Professor Daniel Press about his new book and the future of environmental policy in America.



What was the genesis for you new book American Environmental Policy: the Failures of Compliance, Abatement and Mitigation?

American Environmental Policy took shape as a conversation with Environmental Studies undergraduates at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I have taught for over 20 years. The broad outlines of a college environmental policy course are very similar from one institution to another: a little history, some description of major statutes like the Clean Air Act, the Superfund law, the Clean Water Act and some discussion of the politics around environmental regulation. These topics were well supported by leading environmental policy textbooks.


Why do you feel that this book is needed?

It quickly became apparent that students were lacking two related topics. First, what is the policy tool-kit for addressing environmental problems and challenges? Any graduate student of public administration gets exposed to matters of policy design and the trade-offs between different approaches such as market incentives or command and control regulation. Undergraduates typically don’t delve deeply into the policy toolkit even in their topically focused courses (e.g., defense or health policy). But policy design matters. Different policy approaches make variable assumptions about target audiences, they vary in their complexity, transparency, automaticity and overall effectiveness, depending on the problem at hand, to be sure. Moreover, there is a relationship between politics and policy. American Environmental Policy argues that policy-makers chose end-of-pipe pollution control, for example, because it was assumed to be technological feasible, reasonably effective and politically acceptable.

Second, much environmental policy scholarship and instruction carried out by social scientists fails to critically examine data on environmental quality. Consequently, scholars provide sophisticated econometric, political and policy analysis that doesn’t get adequately connected to environmental outcomes. When many policy scholars do interrogate the effectiveness of environmental regulation, they often take second- or third-hand accounts on face value. Rarely do they engage with the primary environmental science and engineering literatures. In my view, this leads to an overly optimistic assessment of how well American environmental regulation has performed.


Can you explain further why you believe this?

American environmental regulators seem to do their best to preserve, intact, how we produce energy, use land, manufacture goods, build structures and move ourselves around–provided the worst abuses of power are mitigated, reduced or contained. I call this the compliance-abatement-mitigation approach to environmental problems. It accomplished much in the first epoch of modern environmental policy, especially in light of ineffectual 1960s-style pollution abatement, but was predicated on an inherently limited model of transformation. The limits of compliance-abatement-mitigation seemed far off when this approach was first launched, but now threaten to undo hard-won accomplishments and thwart future gains in environmental quality. Although my criticisms are numerous, my aim in this book is a constructive scrutiny of American environmental policy shortcomings accompanied by insights and proposals for developing truly transformative policy in the 21st century.


How does your book set out to do this?

It engages with these issues through a series of case studies chosen to examine regulatory programs long considered among the most successful. If some of the most successful programs are not performing as conventional wisdom would suggest, that would not bode well for programs with less stellar reputations.

Thus, a first case takes aim at the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), long considered to be the gold standard of self-reporting. The TRI consists of annual reports by firms releasing any of some 600 toxic chemicals. Because the data are spatially explicit, many scholars rely upon them to analyze the geography and demographics of environmental inequities. On closer inspection, however, the TRI appears to be a house of cards, built of highly unreliable speculation and guesstimates. That’s because very few of the releases are actually measured. Most of the release reports rely on outdated emissions factors that even the US Environmental Protection Agency finds questionable.

9781781001455_4Another case examines the Acid Rain Program (ARP) launched by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Long hailed by environmental economists, the ARP was the first major, national US environmental regulatory program that used market incentives (tradable permits) to bring down unacceptable emissions at least cost. Sulfur dioxide emissions, a major cause of acid rain in in the US mid Atlantic and Northeast states, did indeed drop spectacularly, by at least 60%. But emissions reductions don’t necessarily mean ecological recovery. Biogeochemists have long known that greater sulfur dioxide emissions reductions would be needed in order for ecosystems to recover, a near impossibility as long as the US relies on coal for a great part of its electric power generation.

Yet another case shows how US paper recycling rarely achieves what the public expects, namely, that recovered fiber will find its way into domestic paper mills. Indeed, while paper recycling in United States has reached greater than 60% in recent years, nearly half of all fiber recovered in the US is sent overseas for use in foreign mills. Instead of viewing paper recycling as a matter of industrial feedstock, American regulation treats it as waste management. The US economy loses an opportunity to take advantage of high quality feedstock to make paper with far less burdens on energy, raw materials and environmental quality.

American Environmental Policy ends with a chapter on reforming environmental policy designs to address the shortcomings of past approaches.


And finally, looking forward, what will the future bring for environmental policy? Are there reasons to be hopeful?

The heartening news is that policy-makers all around the world have experimented with regulatory approaches that rely on high-quality information and insist on superior environmental performance. Thus, the book is not all critique and polemic. Advances in environmental science, remote sensing and engineering allow us to far better connect standards and incentives with actual environmental outcomes if we only choose to adopt them. The “good-enoughism” that so characterizes the last 50 years of the compliance-abatement-mitigation approach can – and should – be replaced with policies that truly work.



dpressDaniel Press is Olga T. Griswold Professor of Environmental Studies and Executive Director, University of California, Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.  His latest book American Environmental Policy: the Failures of Compliance, Abatement and Mitigation is published by Edward Elgar.


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One Comment on “American environmental policy: “The ‘good-enoughism’ that characterizes the last 50 years should be replaced with policies that truly work” – An interview with Daniel Press”

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