The Pendulum Effect: Review And Prospects For Sustainability

Veterans of US environmental management know well the Pendulum Effect. A public health or natural resource issue enters public consciousness. California, the most populous US state, passes a law to manage the issue (Pendulum swings to the "left"). The US Congress, EPA and/or FDA regulate a bit less stringently for all states (Pendulum moves toward the "middle"). Some markets are thus made, and some lost. But overall economic impacts balance out to the positive.

Subsequently, a new President takes office with a deregulatory agenda (Pendulum swings to the "hard right"). As before, it falls to States and municipalities to take the regulatory initiative and to experiment with environmental policy (Pendulum returns to the "middle" or "left"). Conflicts from disjointed state and local regs become a burden to industry, and the cycle starts over. In the USA, it's swung this way, in 4 to 8 year cycles, since roughly 1972.There is evidence of a global pendulum effect as well. With the world-wide environmental issue of polar ozone depletion, the pendulum was miraculously prevented from swinging wide to the right - even though a barrage of Think Tank experts from all over the world weighed in with an agenda of denial, claiming that the polar ozone depletion models were wrong - just as happened more recently with climate science. We suspect the Protocol survived because rational players in industry remained supportive. As a result, the Montreal Protocol was very successful at phasing out ozone depleting substances in developed nations - and continues to be.

The climate science consensus within society still being nascent, and the Kyoto Convention having been effectively sidetracked, the climate "pendulum" was effectively knocked off its arm before a regulatory regime could be tested. As a result, the world has a mix of conflicting experimental regimes. In the US, California is again in the lead on climate management programs. Globally, it has been mostly Europe and to a lessor extent Britain in the lead. China, the USA, Australia, India seem united in pulling the opposite way.

Now to the particulars of green design and why the world-wide "green products boom" is amplifying.

When it comes to product safety issues...take the recent examples of lead-contaminated toys, poisonous pet food, or toxic toothpaste...a rapidly growing number of consumers are intensely focused on Little Steps: small things they can do that make a positive difference - like changing brands or doing without.

Said in a more political way: when any government encourages the 'goats to tend the cabbage patch', holding the pendulum in a "hard right" position, trust is eroded, leaving the citizenry to conclude it must fend for itself. We think this partly explains why organic and "natural" goods are gaining market share at truly fantastic rates, establishing what market watchers have officiously called a "green boom."

In the US, the growing lack of trust in regulatory systems is epitomized by the status of the US Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), as documented by a recent New York Times Article (cited below). We think that the lead-in-toys issue, clearly a CPSP responsibility, is seminal, and will tip the trust issue even in the minds of the least-green slice of the citizenry. A government management system was squandered, and there is no backup in China. The question left open: "will manufacturers and distributors pick up the slack on risk management reviews?" More on that later.

For deep green or "LOHAS" consumers, especially, extreme lack of trust in regulatory processes creates an opportunity for a bit of market vigilantism. When you can't trust your government to screen out the most egregious product safety risks, the only alternative is to self regulate to prevent adverse exposures, based on whatever information is out there, whatever rumors are circulating, regardless of their basis in fact.

Eventually, the distinction between "deep green" consumers and everyone else fades, as enough of the citizenry realizes that Federal officials have locked onto a strategy predicated on a single, non-pragmatic idea: that all policies deemed "PRO- business" are intrinsically good (as defined by lobbyists), and, also, that all policies which are "anti-environment" are "good for business" - when in fact they may well have had a deleterious effect on the economy, environment and public safety.

Now, some might argue that it's about time for big businesses to take their bruises. In the interest of public health and prevention of climate disaster, we think a more pragmatic approach is to restore balance.

Corporations can try lobbying Congress and the Administration to push the pendulum back to the center, empowering Agencies to work in an adequately resourced, professional manner, inviting high levels of public involvement from start to finish.

The longer it takes to balance the need to regulate with market changes, the greater the chance that the pendulum will restart from the extreme left; and, the greater the opportunity for green-washing and/or market fragmentation.

As important: large corporations might wish to re-evaluate their outsourcing decisions and bolster their field audit resources. Don't blame China in other words.

"Under the Bush administration, which promised to ease what it viewed as costly rules that placed unnecessary burdens on businesses, industry-friendly officials have been installed at agencies that oversee the nation’s workplaces, food suppliers, environment and consumer goods."

"Top officials at the Consumer Product Safety Commission say they have enhanced protections for the American public in recent years. But they have also blocked enforcement actions, weakened industry oversight rules and promoted voluntary compliance over safety mandates, according to interviews with current and former senior agency officials and consumer groups and a review of commission documents."

"At a time when imports from China and other Asian countries surged, creating an ever greater oversight challenge, the Bush-appointed commissioners voiced few objections as the already tiny agency — now just 420 workers — was pared almost to the bone."

Via:: New York Times Image credit:: "My Foucault Pendulum" Daryl Bender, Ottawa Canada

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