Environmental Law 101: The Importance of Manufacturing to America.

I am biased. I am pro-jobs. I have also always thought that employment and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. Maybe I am influenced by that fact that I come from northern Wisconsin which is naturally beautiful, albeit economically depressed. Maybe it is my economics background; or my career-long experience with environmental law and regulation. But the reason doesn’t make any difference because the answer is the same.

We live in an ideologically simple society; complex problems are subject to simplistic ideological solutions. During the economic collapse in 2010, I had a discussion with a former client and CEO of a major corporation, about the problems facing America. Of course the first issue was the role of government. The second, and more interesting, issue related to whether America should transition to a service economy. I can appreciate the first issue; it has been debated since the 1936 Presidential election. The second issue surprised me and, in my opinion, couldn’t be more wrong.

I cut my teeth as an environmental lawyer representing “heavy” industry—i.e., the paper industry, the foundry industry, chemical manufacturers, fountain pen manufacturers, defense contractors, pharmaceutical manufacturers, the mining industry, ball point pen manufacturers, glass manufacturers, scrap metal processors and many others. Great countries have great economies; and great economies have a great manufacturing base. Large countries have a varied labor mix. Some will become professionals; some will be blue collar workers or work in agriculture. A vibrant economy requires jobs for the entire range of workers. My father was a school teacher; his brothers were, respectively, a blue collar worker in the local tire plant and a chemical engineer who worked in the nuclear defense industry. We ran the gamut; we were a typical American family.

As a 20 year old pre-law student studying economics at the University of Wisconsin, I worked for Republican Governor Warren Knowles. I got to drive him around and to make trips with him to various parts of the state. He was a lawyer; his father had been a judge. As we drove around the state, I got the benefit of his insights into a variety of issues; the car was the classroom and the student-teacher ratio was 1 to 1.

I remember Governor Knowles talking about education. He was a graduate from, and a strong supporter of, the University of Wisconsin system. But he also had a strong interest in vocational education. I remember him commenting one day: “Not everyone should go to college; not everyone is suited for it. We need a strong vocational education program so that those who don’t go to college can be trained for jobs that interest them and that they are good at.” He strongly supported a state-wide vocational education program; and he supported manufacturers funding special “public-private” partnerships at local vocational schools to train students for jobs in their industries.

America will underperform economically if it is satisfied with becoming a service society. The country is too big and too varied for that to happen. A great economy depends on a great manufacturing base—and America has been losing that battle. Between 2000 and 2010, America lost 30% of its manufacturing jobs. America’s population today is twice as large as it was at the end of the Great Depression, but the number of manufacturing jobs today is about the same as it was then. We lost 6 million manufacturing jobs in the first decade of this century.

What does all of this have to do with environmental protection? First, environmental protection didn’t cost us those jobs. Second, economic development and environmental protection are not, nor can we let them become, mutually exclusive. They can’t be in a society that wants an acceptable employment rate. Employed people earn income, pay taxes and buy goods; they keep the economy going. All manufacturing activity has, however, both economic impacts and environmental impacts. To have the former, we have to have the latter; but the latter can be properly controlled. I know because I spent my 40 year career dealing with those issues—dealing with regulators, Native American communities, local activists and environmental advocates. Compromise should not be a dirty word; nor should we look at manufacturing as a “thing of the past” that we can do without—or cavalierly let slip away to other countries because we care more about low cost imports than high paying domestic jobs. Manufacturing has to be a vibrant part of the American economy and neither environmental regulation nor theoretical economic fads should stand in its way.

Manufacturing jobs are critical to the economic well-being of America. We have given away too many jobs for a variety of political and ideological reasons. Our population has doubled since the Great Depression, but we now have the same number of manufacturing jobs as we did “back then.” Environmental protection is critical to the health of Americans and the preservation of natural resources; but environmental protection and economic development are not mutually exclusive. As is always the case, the “devil is in the details.” But, in this case, there must be comity in the best interests of the country as a whole.

Comments are closed.