Jaro: Environmentalism for 21st century


Jan Jaro, Columnist

When Erin Brockovich comes to speak on campus Wednesday, she will deservedly receive a warm welcome from students and faculty in attendance for her role in securing a settlement with utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company on behalf of Hinkley, Calif., residents who suffered chromium contamination of water supplies. Her work, which was the subject of a 2000 film named after her, is just a small sample of environmental issues spanning from alternative energy funding to the potential health effects of hydraulic fracturing. However, while most people associate environmentalism with causes like Brockovich’s, the reality is that environmentalism is a wide-spanning effort from scientists, businessmen and politicians, a number of whom are associated with companies that at some point have had a negative impact on the environment.

By no means am I trying to excuse companies like PG&E. Last summer, I interned at a company whose mission was to leverage collective bargaining, thereby delivering better value to customers with the long-run goal of promoting sustainable energy. I came to dislike utilities such as PG&E and local Evanston utility Commonwealth Edison for their inability to deliver both service and monetary value to residential and small-business users of energy.

However, the belief that the quest for a better environment excludes large corporations is simply delusional. The know-how and experience of utilities and, more pertinently, energy and chemical companies, drive global economic growth. To put things in perspective, the ability to mass-produce chemicals and coal was a major part of the Industrial Revolution, which is largely responsible for the comfortable lifestyle that readers of this newspaper enjoy today. Energy and chemicals have become more and not less important in today’s world as billions of people climb out of poverty across South America, Africa and Asia.

Large multinational firms, some of which Northwestern students aspire to work for, have developed interests in environmental issues. German bellwether Deutsche Bank underwrites and co-develops a number of biofuel and wind projects. On the engineering side of the equation, BP is researching and developing biofuel and wind technologies that will have an incremental, but appreciable, impact on energy availability. Most encouraging is the collaboration between industry and academia on environmental issues. For example, NU’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (which was the focus of envy during my time at the University of Rochester’s chapter) has secured sponsorship from Dow, Boeing and Siemens.

Many environmental activists point to the occurrence of major accidents such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and chemical poisoning of water supplies as evidence that not enough is being done on the policy front. To be sure, I find environmental incidents saddening and frustrating because of the wealth destruction, contamination of natural habitats and even loss of human life.

However, the drastic solutions, such as a permanent moratorium on offshore drilling, are the wrong ones. Instead, I would prefer to see a more nuanced approach to environmental issues. Some examples include tighter safety regulations on oil drills and hydraulic fracturing wells as well as increased funding of basic science and engineering research rather than direct subsidies of companies which clearly have a competitive disadvantage against their peers.

Bigger issues, such as emissions controls, will take a longer time to work out. While I am as much a member of Greg Mankiw’s Pigou Club as anybody else, it doesn’t make sense to impose an emissions tax or an American cap and trade system without international cooperation simply because a large proportion of the consumption fueling the pollution would move overseas, resulting in a transfer of wealth to developing countries such as China. Instead, I believe that smarter spending of government dollars and targeted regulation of industry will negate much of the environmental impact of our society as well as produce positive spillovers in education and jobs creation.

I don’t pretend to understand environmental issues in great detail. I would also be really skeptical of anybody who claims to have a firm grasp of all the issues. Environmentalism spans the chemical and energy industries, modern finance, market and policy design, corporate social responsibility and so much more. However, I feel confident in asserting that environmental issues are a team effort. Perhaps that’s why McCormick so strongly emphasizes design and a balanced grasp of technical issues. For once, a school administration has gotten something right.

Jan Jaro is a McCormick sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].