Reflections on Allen V. Kneese’s remarks from an article drawn from an issue of Resources in the archive, in which Kneese reflects on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990.
In this new article, former RFF President Paul R. Portney reflects on Kneese's remarks from 30 years ago. As a friend to Kneese for several decades, Portney shares a warm and thoughtful account of the personal and professional values that informed Kneese's perspective.
Portney acknowledges some of Kneese's insights that remain true today and speculates on what Kneese might have highlighted in an updated article this year, if only he were still around. Portney notes that Kneese probably would express alarm at the widespread habitat destruction and its consequences in our contemporary world.
Allen Kneese was only 42 years old when I joined the research staff at Resources for the Future (RFF) in 1972 as a newly minted PhD in economics from Northwestern University. In many ways, he was the kind of mid-career colleague and mentor that every young researcher would love to have. He was accessible, joining us younger scholars for lunch in the Brookings cafeteria almost every day (RFF rented office space on Massachusetts Avenue from Brookings at that time); when asked to contribute papers to academic journals or edited volumes, he almost always invited one or more of us to collaborate with him, sharing the credit generously; he attended seminars at which we presented our ongoing work and provided always-constructive feedback; and finally, his office door was always open for a discussion or a hearty laugh.
Nevertheless, there was a world-weariness or melancholy side to Allen, even at that relatively young age. Perhaps this was a result of having experienced a World War, the Korean War, and then the conflict in Vietnam, all before he turned 40. Perhaps it was because he cared deeply and personally about our shared global environment and the problems that were becoming obvious to all after many decades of industrial expansion in the United States and around the world; for Allen, at least, the environment wasn't just an interesting area to which to apply economic thinking. And perhaps it was because he was a deeply philosophical person who was particularly sensitive to the pain of those less fortunate, either at home or half the world away.
Allen was a very good economist. Indeed, he and his RFF colleague John Krutilla were awarded the very first Volvo Environment Prize in 1990—an award that has sometimes presaged future Nobel Prizes. Although Allen never aspired to become a top economic theoretician, he reminded me very much of two of the very best of his time—the late Kenneth Arrow and Robert Solow (a former RFF board member), both Nobel laureates in economics. Like them, Allen was not only very smart, but also very wise. He sensed when the results emanating from an apparently well-designed economic model or experiment didn't quite "feel" right. More often than not, that inkling was right. He shared one other admirable quality with the likes of Arrow and Solow—an unshakable belief that research on any public policy issue was of little use were it not applied to make policy better. He, like they, wanted to make his country and the world a better place for everyone.
With this as a backdrop, how might Allen have looked back from today's perspective on his article of 30 years ago? First, I believe he'd be dismayed and deeply discouraged at the way environmental protection has come to be so sharply politicized. As he noted, it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who signed much of the sweeping new environmental legislation of the early 1970s. The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act that Allen foreshadowed in his article were championed and signed by another Republican president, George H. W. Bush. Those amendments were implemented initially and enthusiastically by William Reilly, who, along with William Ruckelshaus, another Republican, are arguably the two best administrators in the 50-year history of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Suffice it to say that the dramatic U-turns on environmental regulation taken by the current Republican administration would infuriate Allen, I believe.
As for the substantive issues Allen identified as being worthy of mention, he would no doubt take satisfaction in having highlighted global warming. It is widely believed to be the paramount environmental challenge of our time. While some progress has been made in the United States, along with other countries that are large emitters of greenhouse gases, much more and harder work still needs doing. Thanks to the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, the United States also has made considerable progress in reducing acid rain. Emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from electricity-generating stations, as well as emissions of nitrogen oxide from motor vehicles, have fallen significantly. Yet here, too, backsliding is taking place.
While this is pure guesswork on my part, Allen might well reconsider the other two issues he highlighted—the environmental impacts associated with agriculture and the problem of nuclear waste. It is not that these issues are unimportant. They were in 1990, and they still are today, despite the fact that progress has been made in reducing the impacts of agricultural run-off and other non-point sources. From the vantage point of 2020, however, my guess is that Allen would choose to call attention to habitat destruction and the global loss of species—from the depth of the ocean floor to the skies above. It is not just the pesticides and fertilizers used in agriculture that create these threats. In addition, the land clearing to make way for increased urbanization (and yes, for agriculture, too) destroys the habitat for many species. Similarly, industrial fishing, in which the ocean floor is sometimes literally scraped, has resulted in the extinction or significant diminishment of many aquatic species. It's hard to imagine Allen Kneese not identifying that as a paramount threat.
In some respects, Allen's most interesting choice in his 1990 Resources article was the question of nuclear waste. Like the environmental impacts of agriculture, it was a thorny problem then and, if anything, is a more pressing one today. This is so if only because we have 30 more years of accumulated spent fuel from nuclear generating stations being stored in "temporary" casks on the grounds of those plants. The Yucca Mountain Repository would appear to be no closer to accepting wastes from these plants than it was when Allen wrote about it.
Allen thought in great depth about the promises and perils of commercial nuclear power—he was one of many wise people who referred to it as a "Faustian bargain." On the one hand, he recognized that nuclear generating plants produce the electricity that modern societies cannot live without, and they do so with absolutely no emissions of carbon dioxide or other conventional pollutants. In that respect, nuclear power plants are a blessing in the fight against global climate change. Moreover, despite a number of well-publicized accidents, the combined safety record of the 100+ nuclear plants in the United States that have been in service for the past 50 or so years has been exemplary. During that time, hundreds of thousands of lives, if not more, have likely been lost due to the fine particulate emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Despite what he said in his article, I believe Allen's principal concern about commercial nuclear power was not with how we would safely dispose of the spent fuel here in the United States. Rather, he was terrified that the construction of nuclear power plants all around the world would one day enable a nation so disposed to enrich the spent fuel from one or more of its plants and use it to make a nuclear weapon. With Allen a 15-year-old at the time that atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how could he not have had this concern?
To repeat, I have only speculated here how the Allen Kneese of the year 2020 might look back on what he had to say 30 years previously. The one thing I can say for certain is that the world would be a better place today, if only he were here to ask!