• Ed Flattau

Trading Places

In the 1970s, the United States was the world’s environmental leader. By contrast, Europe was anything but.


Fast forward to 2019 and the roles are reversed.


How did this dramatic shift come to pass?


Nearly a half century ago, Stanley Johnson, father of England’s current prime minister, was one of the few environmental activist officials in the governing body that today is the European Union (EU). He was operating in a Europe preoccupied with the tail end of its post-World War Two economic recovery. The main call to environmental arms was left to a handful of distinguished elder statesmen who were largely ignored in official circles.

Meanwhile, the United States was enacting landmark environmental laws that served as prototypes for many other nations (including European states) in ensuing years.


Currently, Europe is a world leader in tackling sustainability, preserving biodiversity, perfecting biotechnology, coping with climate change, and regulating toxic substances.

The United States, courtesy of the Trump Administration, has not only lagged as an aggressive environmental advocate. It has moved in the opposite direction, having orchestrated massive regulatory rollbacks that dilute enforcement.

This role reversal can produce strikingly disparate incarnations. For example, the EU banned 1100 toxic chemicals from use in cosmetics while we banned only ten, giving the merchant’s profit rather than the consumer’s health the benefit of the doubt.


Another gaping difference - the EU is formulating a schedule for achieving a carbon neutral status by 2050, whereas, such lofty ambition is not on Trump’s wish list. Instead, he is engaged in setting back emission reduction progress through all-out exploitation of the coal, oil, and gas still in the ground. The risk thus grows of irreversible harm from a saturated atmosphere.

Why the major role reversal? Our fall from grace is not all on Trump. He is the culmination rather than the cause of our ecological demotion.

Europe’s infrastructure and culture are more suited for accepting strict regulation than our own. This is because of the EU’s greater population density and less space and natural resources throughout the ages. These conditions have also been conducive to an inculcation of a conservation ethic and resistance to corporate assaults on environmental regulation.

Meanwhile, our capitalist system from the start was infused with a laissez-faire mentality. Couple that with a national character marked by an independent streak nurtured by the taming of a vast wild, unruly continent. This combination offers at least a partial explanation for the GOP’s balking at environmental constraints as well as its resolute maneuvering to relax them.



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