The Environmental Business Journal provides valuable services as a strategic leader and partner for environmental-energy businesses and industries. In this interview, featured in Volume XXXI, No. 3/4, James Strock discusses environmental trends.
Given your perspective on running an environmental protection agency and on leadership what is your assessment of Administrator Pruitt and his interim successor, Andrew Wheeler? My initial hands-on learning about administering an environmental agency was as an assistant to William Ruckelshaus, when he returned to restore EPA in the Reagan administration. The Ruckelshaus leadership approach was predicated on strict adherence to and enforcement of the law; deep, actionable transparency in decision-making; an open door to all stakeholders; a commitment to the best-available science; and the highest ethical standards for public servants. Aiming for such goals is to pursue high ideals; failing to strive for them can have real-world consequences. Acting Administrator Wheeler may find value in examining and emulating the Ruckelshaus model.
What areas could the administration show improvement without alienating most of their political base? This question reflects an aspect of US EPA that has, regrettably in my view, become accepted in the past generation. Rather than serving as a truly “independent” agency, it has become customary for Republican and Democratic administrations to tilt the agency measurably toward their respective favored interest groups. This goes beyond mere changes in priorities to reflect public sentiment. It has numerous consequences. The agency is less respected. Its decision-making is viewed as often biased or even partisan. Its decisions are therefore less durable, liable to sudden and dramatic changes in the political tides. More and more authority moves from accountable, appointed officials. One hopes that an administration will take steps to break this trend. If there is greater transparency and commitment to limiting undue political influence, decisions will earn greater respect from all sides. They might also be smarter decisions, even wise ones, reflecting a greater diversity of thinking and a rigorous contest of ideas. At this point, breaking the expectations that have been established over many years will require major change, coming from the agency administrator and backed by the president. This is an exceptionally tall order. The poisonous partisanship afflicting our politics is a powerful force maintaining the status quo.
How do you react to the perspective that the function of EPA is to uphold the law rather than the broader mission of protecting public health? That this is a publicly discussed question reflects just how far off course environmental politics have moved in the past quarter century. The first task of any government agency must be to enforce the law. If the law is outdated or unjust or otherwise not working as intended or needed, then the law must be changed. Instead, recent administrations of both major political parties have resorted to various workarounds of our constitutional process. They rationalize these in their own ways. What is common is the avoidance of the challenge of earning public support for concerted congressional and presidential action. Presidents of both of the dominant political parties, with various partisan alignments in Congress, have failed to achieve major statutory changes for nearly thirty years, going back to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The entire energy-environment space cries out for updating to meet the challenges of the new century.
How strongly do you feel about the US role in global affairs broadly and in climate change in particular? This is a massive question. The United States role in global affairs is overdue for reconsideration and reconfiguration. There’s nothing more lethal than decades of success. Our institutional arrangements, such as the United Nations and various regional accords are based on the post-World War II world. Much of the thinking behind these arrangements was derived from the post-World War I experience. It’s a good thing that the glacial politics around these matters is finally beginning to show some breakage within the United States political system. Climate change—I prefer the term climate disruption, which I believe is more accurate and compelling—cries out for United States leadership. Our presidents have not made it a priority that the public can comprehend sufficiently to provide a basis for concerted, accountable institutional action, such as international treaties approved by the Senate, or new statutes to reorient domestic arrangements. Approaching climate change will necessarily be a much more decentralized effort than was customary in the twentieth century. We live in a decentralizing moment. Washington will have a vital role, but a different one. As with other areas of longtime federal government paralysis, one hopes and prays that necessary action will not be forced upon us by a universally recognized crisis. If it does, history will surely be justly devastating in its verdict.
For leaders of environmental services companies how do you suggest they approach their leadership challenges in today’s environment? Meeting the immediate challenges of quarterly earnings and unpredictable market and government trends is necessarily the first order of business. To a great extent, we must take the world as it is. Nonetheless, environmental services companies, with their public component, can also serve a larger vision. Their voice in holding government to a higher standard can be powerful. The temptation to simply play along with current partisanship and dysfunctional politics can be seductive in the short-term, but it can also be unstable if not dangerous. If there’s one lesson that the Trump and Sanders insurgencies bring, it’s that the current arrangements in government and politics are vulnerable. Disruptive change is coming, even if we can’t yet see precisely the form it will take.
What is your view on some key societal issues that are likely to impact us in the longer term? Artificial intelligence, machine learning and the presumed significantly decreasing demand for labor, etc. AI represents a spectacular opportunity. As such, it poses corresponding risks. One aspect is already coming into view. People in highly regulated sectors have been relatively insulated from the changes already coursing through the economy. AI will break through those citadels in short order. With wise leadership it can occasion a wide-ranging and necessary reexamination of all manner of institutional arrangements from the industrial era, beginning with social insurance and the welfare state.
The transportation sector: Autonomous vehicles and the potential for socialized transportation. Autonomous vehicles hold great potential for increasing mobility. Older and younger people, disabled people can be granted new freedom and capacity to create value. Scandalously high levels of deaths from motor vehicles can be reduced significantly. There can also be a great amount of value unlocked from the individual ownership of motor vehicles, which sit unused for hours per day, or in unproductive applications in clogged, outdated transportation arteries. To be sure, there are challenges, such as the widely remarked loss of high-paying jobs in trucking. Yet, there will also be possibilities for new tasks. The political project should be to make government a bridge toward a future we cannot entirely comprehend, rather than a barrier vainly attempting to maintain an unsustainable status quo or even worse, a mythic past.
Electrification of vehicles and the gradual or dramatic decline in demand for petroleum products. I anticipate the economy to be comparable to my hybrid vehicle: reliant on electricity and gasoline, reliable in performance, yet clearly a transitional arrangement. The direction is clear but the destination is not. Much of this will depend upon political decisions: approaches to climate disruption, changes in public sentiment including settlement patterns, wars and so on. Meanwhile, technological change will continue, providing additional input and prospects.
The top end potential for renewable energy as we know it today. There are at least three overarching aspects to envisioning and actualizing the potential for renewable energy. The first is political. If, for example, climate disruption becomes an operational rather than rhetorical priority at the presidential level, it will force serious thinking and debate about what is to be considered “renewable.” We are seeing the first shoots of this in the reconsideration of nuclear energy by some who are motivated primarily by urgent concern about climate disruption. An example is the work of Michael Shellenberger and Environmental Progress. Another aspect relates to the nature of government policy making relating to technology. It’s a very delicate dance, perhaps more of an art than a science, to encourage adoption of new technologies without having the perverse side effect of limiting further advancement. This points—inevitably in the energy-environment space—to the need for smart and tough political and governmental practices. We have good and bad historical examples in this respect. We must choose wisely. Finally, there is a generational aspect. One hopes that the rising generations will question longstanding assumptions and bring new perspectives. I’ll readily concede that the evidence is mixed on this last point, while casting my lot resolutely with the optimists.
James Strock Interview Environmental Business Journal