Environmental policy that works

J. M. Velasco, Valle de Mexico 1892

This is what the Valley of Mexico looked like at the turn of the 20th century.  When I came across a couple of paintings of this view  by José Maria Velasco, a near-contemporary of the Hudson River School artists of the US, in the Museo Nacional de Arte, I was close to tears, having walked into the building from contemporary Mexico City.  Has there ever been a more complete devastation of a natural paradise, short of flooding a valley with a dam, or dumping a West Virginia mountaintop into the river below it to get some coal out?

In less than a hundred years an idyllic mountain valley surrounded by volcanoes had turned into the eighth largest city in the world stifling in a pool of toxic, opaque air pollution:

Photo: Alfredo Cottin

Mexico City hasn’t got its lake back, and is still sinking because of pumping groundwater, and it remains one of the most pedestrian-hostile cities in the world, but not having been there for almost a decade, I loved this story: you can see across it again, and breathing isn’t a constant insult to lungs.

Photo: www.imagenesaereasdemexico.com

The improvement in every quality indicator of air quality in an enormous city located in one of the worst places for air pollution persistence is an inspiration.  No, the economy didn’t collapse under the crushing weight of brutal regulation: the cleanup wasn’t free but it’s such a bargain, not just in health benefits but quality of life…and what else matters, when you get right down to it?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

5 thoughts on “Environmental policy that works”

  1. "and what else matters, when you get right down to it?"

    Why, making your quarterly profit goals by avoiding paying for your waste, of course! Silly man.

    [/jaded snark]

  2. Of course, Mexico's cleaning up its air a few decades after wealthier countries have done the same. There are a lot of models to copy. And starting from zero, there's a lot of relatively easy progress to make, and any resident can literally see the prgoress.

    It's somewhat different than, say, reducing CO2 emissions. Just saying.

  3. I was in Mexico City last fall – parts of it are quite walkable, although much of it is way too dangerous to do so.

    The link says lead pollution's fallen 90% since 1990, which could be a good test of the "less lead, less crime" hypothesis discussed here at Same Facts, a while back. Coincidentally, 1990 is when Romania legalized birth control and abortion so now's a good time to test the alternative hypothesis there.

  4. I'm in Mexico City fairly frequently, & for much of the last 30 years I'd usually come back with a sinus infection. Lately, not.

  5. Environmental regulation will ruin the economy? We've already done that study here. By 1998, a combination of laws put in place before 1992, and regulations made and laws enforced by the Clinton administration, had resulted in substantial improvements in a wide variety of environmental indicators. Meanwhile, the economy was setting records for sustained growth. Conservatives claim they stand on principle, but unfortunately one of their most cherished is that none of their other principles needs to be subjected to evidentiary proof.

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