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Early in the modem history of environmentalism, James Krier and Edmund Ursin wrote a very useful book called Pollution and Policy. Building on California's experience with air pollution control, the authors argued that environmental regulatory efforts involve a kind of learning process. That is, legislators operate by collective trial and error, enacting and then "exfoliating" one regulatory scheme after another, ideally using even the failures to learn more about the problems confronting them.
In these matters as in so many others, the country as a whole has followed California's lead, learning in fits and starts about environmental problems. But what have we learned in all the exfoliations since the first Earth Day? Readers of this Symposium will no doubt observe that there are almost too many answers to that question; quite a number, however, fall into three major categories of problems. I call these, respectively, the Information Problem, the Budget Problem, and the Priorities Problem. Regarding the first, we have special difficulties in simply finding out about environmental problems. As for the second, even when we do have information, we have additional difficulties in adopting a systematic, cost-effective approach to budgeting on environmental issues. And as for the third, even when we can budget for individual issues, we find still other impediments to comparing and ranking environmental issues—impediments that prevent us from addressing these issues in an orderly progression.
In the environmental area, learning, budgeting, and ranking are difficult tasks technically. But what is more daunting, as this Essay argues, is that some of the most promising approaches to the technical problems seem socially unattractive. All this should direct our attention to still another issue: We need to think about persuasion and rhetoric in dealing with environmental matters.
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