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Environmental Law: A Diametric Controversy

Posted by: Annika Darling @ Jan. 15, 2015, 11:13 a.m.

Environmental law is complex. It regulates everything from the waters that we drink to the air that we breath, and protects everything from endangered species to lonely mountain tops. The major challenge of Environmental law is balancing the protection of the environment and people’s rights to live in a clean world, with the needs of our economy and the rights of a Capitalist society. 


For the most part, environmental law is still in its infancy, and even though the world is in a much better, much cleaner place, then it was 30 years ago, an awareness of the extent of our destruction has begun to take hold. The realization that we’ve caused serious and irreversible damage to our one and only planet, has led some people to swing the pendulum with such furry that not every aspect of our society has been able to change gears as swiftly. 

When it comes to the legal ramifications for environmental violations there is a collision of diametrically opposing views. On one hand environmentalist argue the ramifications are not enough: the fines do not deter environmental polluters, nor are they significant to penalizes the crimes committed -- crimes which cause damage to the environment and are most often times unquantifiable. On the other hand, over zealous regulations can turn into impediments, restricting businesses that, in today’s economy, are incredibly valuable. 

Some ask: have we gone too far? Is an over zealous government doing more harm than good, especially in the midst of a recession? For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stopped giving permits to mine coal, whereby demonizing the entire production and those who are a part of it. 

Though government regulations have led to many beneficial improvements and coal today is much cleaner than ever before, the conundrum lies in the fact that there are many good people working in the power plants and in the mines, just trying to make a living, whose jobs are now being ostracized. But everybody wants electricity! And half of our electricity still comes from coal. 

Left to its own devices Capitalism does have a way of self cleansing, of winnowing out those businesses that have wronged the system or are no longer serving it; however, this is not the case when it comes to environmental wrongs. 

Environmental violations differ from other business crimes because they involve fewer reputational costs. Evidence indicates that frauds, product recalls, false advertising, and punitive damage lawsuits all impose reputational penalties: such as consumers boycotting the company, and a significant loss in share value. Environmental violations do not carry such reputational repercussions, perhaps due to the fact that consumers are less likely to be directly affected by such violations. 

Whatever the case, it is apparent that we need environmental laws and EPA as a watchdog and enforcer of said laws. Without them the environment would be vulnerable, and as history has taught us, not safe in the hands of a pure Capitalist society: where environmental degradation and pollution is the price so many are willing to pay for material success and gain.  

Many international organizations recognize environmental degradation as one of the major threats facing the planet. Since humans have only been given one Earth to work with, if the environment becomes irreparably compromised it could mean the end to human existence. 

Without the implementation of environmental laws who would be held responsible or financially liable for assessments of and damage to the environment? And how exactly, would the liability be upheld? In may cases no one wants to claim responsibility. If the situation was left to a matter of goodwill it is likely the Earth would be in much worse condition than it is today. 

Ironically, many environmental regulations that are seemingly hurting the economy -- by putting roadblocks in front of businesses, or slowing down production -- are in fact paving the way to innovation and technology. Stricter environmental laws tend to increase innovative environmentally friendly technology, writes Frank Wijen in "A Handbook of Globalization and Environmental Policy." As companies are forced to follow stricter guidelines demand rises for sustainable technology, which leads to researchers and entrepreneurs developing such technologies; it is a shift in the economy, not a destruction of it.

In the long run environmental laws can actually save businesses and individuals money, by reducing waste and energy usage. Sure, it may be an investment at the start, and the adaptation to new practices may be seen initially in a negative light, but it’s a very small price to pay in comparison to the negative effects of not implementing these laws…such as death, illness, and ecosystem destruction. 

Nevertheless, it is important the environmental laws are not put in place without considering the impacts on local communities. For example, if a law is put in place that prohibits people from entering a protected area, without recognizing that the people rely on that ecosystem for survival then that law has not found the proper balance in protecting all life involved, and is sure to be greeted with major backlash. 

Like the environment itself, environmental law needs to find a balance in regards to the implementation of such regulations. Everyone has the right to live in an environment which is not harmful to their health or their well-being; yet, everyone has a right to utilize the gifts of our Capitalists society in order to carve out a substantial living. 

The controversy surrounding environmental law may benefit from a more didactic conversation, for finding a balance and resolution lies in our future ability to not only compromise with each other but with the environment, and not just to change but to adapt.

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