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Sunday -- April 22nd -- was "Earth Day" again, a holiday celebrated in true American style with department store sales, appeals for money, and trips to the mall in the largest, least efficient SUVs anyone can find.

Is it bad to be green? Of course not. Efforts to reduce, re-use and re-cycle have paid huge dividends. Auto manufacturers have found that it's possible to build more efficient cars -- and also that people will buy them. Steel mills and electrical generating plants no longer belch unlimited chemical plumes. Any number of streams, rivers and lakes are cleaner than 30 years ago.

But despite this progress, environmental perfection is increasingly the litmus test we use to evaluate policies and politicians. Any proposed standard invariably sets off calls for even tougher norms -- and costs be damned.

Let's look at events on the environmental front during the past few weeks.

Arsenic

President Bush, in a fit of reason, said "no" to extremist arsenic regulations. Instead of keeping arsenic levels at 50 per billion in drinking water, the new rule -- adopted in the final days of the Clinton Administration -- would drop the requirement to 10 parts per billion.

But isn't 10 parts per billion safer than 50 parts? If you're an absolutist, yes. But what are you willing to pay for the extra margin of safety, is the extra margin necessary, and are there better ways to spend the money that might go toward arsenic reduction?

The government, says Michael Kinsley in The Washington Post calculates that a human life is worth $6.1 million but that it would cost $65 million per life saved to achieve the new standard.

"Every dollar tacked onto your water bill for reducing arsenic," explains Kinsley, "means you have one dollar less to spend on other things, including life-prolonging things such as health care, education, etc. At some unknown point -- surely less than $65 million per -- a regulation can start costing more lives than it saves." (See: "Bush Is Right On Arsenic, Darn!" April 13, 2001)

Endangered Species

When a species is thought to be endangered, government scientists must map its habitat so that preservation efforts can be undertaken. The catch is that under various court rulings and because the law is unclear, it is now the practice to begin mapping once a species is added to the endangered list -- but before biologists have identified specific habitat areas. To err on the safe side, huge regions are declared habitats thus limiting owner rights over vast areas.

Calls for absolute purity do little to improve air or water quality, but they are useful if your aim is to increase memberships and bring in money. It's unfortunate we don't have a day to glorify rational thinking. If we did, "Common Sense Day" would no doubt produce its share of sales and ritual trips to the mall, but it might also illustrate that the environmental movement needs to be re-thought.

Bruce Babbitt -- Interior Secretary in the Clinton Administration -- notes that, "In one recent case in California, the Fish and Wildlife Service was ordered by a federal court to produce, on a short deadline, a habitat map for the endangered red-legged frog. The frog has been identified in streams and wetlands scattered throughout southern California, but the Fish and Wildlife Service had limited biological surveys to identify its critical habitats. So the service quite understandably painted with a broad brush þ in this case four million acres, an area the size of Connecticut. Unsurprisingly, this map enraged landowners and developers, who feared the regulatory consequences of such a designation." (See: "Bush Isn't All Wrong About The Endangered Species Act," The New York Times, April 15, 2001)

Local Zoning

Zoning is supposed to provide for orderly growth in urban and suburban areas -- though in practice it seems to increasingly serve as a form of environmental regulation.

The best example, by far, involves the zoning problems of John Thoburn. Mr. Thoburn is in jail -- IN JAIL -- because of his zoning transgressions.

What did Mr. Thoburn do that was so terrible?

You might think, for example, that Mr. Thoburn operates an open pit mine, uses redwoods for kindling or runs a hog farm that discharges 500 tons of swine poop into local streams each day.

Nope. The situation here is far more serious. Mr. Thoburn owns a driving range -- you know, a swath of grass over which golfers go for distance and aim. He has failed, say local officials, to plant a sufficient number of trees and shrubs. To be exact, reports The Washington Times, 146 trees and 124 shrubs. (See: "Zoning defiance keeps 'Shrubman' in jail," April 16, 2001)

As well, the Canada National Post explains that, "John Thoburn has spent more than a month in jail because he refuses to move 30 trees on his 20-hectare driving range, and Fairfax County -- the richest county in the United States -- says he won't get out until he moves them.

"The county zoning board," the paper continues, "insists Mr. Thoburn move the trees to act as a buffer between his property and that of his closest neighbour. But the neighbour happens to be Mr. Thoburn's father, Bob, who says the demand is ridiculous." (See: "Driving range turns into battlefield," March 30, 2001)

Curiously, says the local Reston Times, the state department of transportation really likes Mr. Thoburn's land -- and may take it from him through condemnation. (See: "A coincidence?" March 21, 2001)

What the examples above have in common is a total disregard for common sense. There is no balance, no sense of proportion. To paraphrase George Santayana, what we see are situations where efforts have been redoubled -- and purposes have been forgotten.

Our laws specifically provide that costs need NOT be considered when formulating environment regulations. In a case involving the Clean Air Act (Whitman v. American Trucking Associations), the Supreme Court unanimously decided in February that the law is the law and that Congress has determined that no costs can be considered when establishing environmental policies.

The Supreme Court is right. The Clean Air Act is the law. But that law, and other environmental rules, are absolutist and absurd. The time to change them is now.

In the meantime, contributions to the Thoburn defense fund are welcome... just visit FreeJohnThoburn.com.

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