Inspired by TV’s David Letterman, it is time for a Top 10 list of the most seriously stupid environmental policies in the United States.

Inspired by TV’s David Letterman, it is time for a Top 10 list of the most seriously stupid environmental policies in the United States. As is the custom, we will start at Number 10, the least stupid policy, and move along a gradient toward even greater stupidity.

10. Heavy applications of pesticides and fertilizers on suburban lawns and golf courses. This is a truly needless effort at aesthetic appeal that is damaging water quality. True, it has spawned a lawn-care industry, but at what price? The U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Quality Assessment urban program revealed that significant concentrations of diazinon, atrazine, carbaryl, chlorpyrifos, prometon, and nutrients come, not from farmers, but from suburbanites in search of the perfect lawn.

9. U.S. EPA is not a Cabinet-level agency. It’s true! The United States is the only developed country that does not elevate its environmental agency to cabinet status. Current EPA Administrator Leavitt is not Secretary Leavitt-he does not have a seat at Cabinet meetings, and he does not have the power that is needed in D.C. when environmental policy requires broad political clout.

8. Invasive species. From ballast water to shipping materials, we lack serious policies to prevent and control invasive species. There are now 163 invaders in the Great Lakes ecosystem alone. Rivaling habitat destruction for its deleterious effect on ecosystems, invasive species are a little-known consequence of increased trade and globalization.

7. Laissez-faire urban and regional planning. Why not bike trails, mass transit, and planned communities rather than strip malls, dead downtowns, and endless concrete parking ramps? In a democracy, developers do not control zoning ordinances and city councils, or do they?

6. Outmoded water policy and law. The person who gets there first, gets to keep the water? We have government-subsidized crops grown with irrigation water from depleted groundwater aquifers. These are some truly stupid water policies. The cost of water to customers in Phoenix, Ariz., (8 inches of precipitation per year) is less than Iowa City, Iowa (36 inches). We need a major updating of water law and policy throughout the country, especially in the arid west.

5. Perverse taxes and subsidies. To achieve critical environmental and social goals, we should change taxes and subsidies that encourage the use of nonrenewable, polluting substances. Why not use revenue-neutral schemes to shift taxes to nonrenewable resources, like oil and natural gas? Why not shift subsidies from roads to bike paths, from logging to parks, from mineral mining to communities where our young people will want to locate?

4. No fuel-efficiency improvements since mid-1980s. We drive more cars, larger cars, and more miles each year with no increase in fuel-efficiency standards. Policy states that SUVs are trucks, and therefore not subject to mileage requirements for cars. So, we all buy trucks. In the United States, we have more cars and trucks than we have people with driver’s licenses to drive them! Would someone from another planet be able to tell that the world is running out of petroleum and production is peaking?

3. Kyoto Treaty rejection. With 5 percent of the people, the United States produces about 25 percent of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Developed, rich countries have emitted about 70 percent of the anthropogenic GHGs in the atmosphere. But the United States seems to bear no responsibility to decrease emissions or to join a worldwide treaty on climate change.

2. Energy insecurity. Is it rational to import more than half your fossil fuel from countries in the most politically volatile regions of the world, then burn it and emit GHGs? Our Vice President has said that no serious energy policy could be based on renewable energy sources. Now that solar photovoltaic and wind power are growing at 30 percent per year, I would suggest that no serious energy policy could possibly exclude these homegrown, less-polluting, job-creating, balance-of-payment-solving technologies.
(Drum roll.) And the most seriously stupid policy on the part of the United States that, if reversed, could do the greatest good for the environment…

1. Assistance for developing countries. From a $2.6 trillion budget, we spend a meager $8-10 billion each year on development assistance for poor countries. The U.S. budget includes more for defense, $450 billion, than what the next 50 countries combined spend on their militaries. Having pledged 0.7 percent of our gross domestic product on assistance, we actually contribute 0.1%-the least of all developed countries. For the next dollar spent at the margin, we could obtain the greatest environmental good by investing in poor countries to preserve forests, protect species, and emit less GHG as they develop.

To be smart, we need only to be less stupid. —Jerald L. Schnoor

Schnoor is the Allen S. Henry Chair of Engineering at the University of Iowa, and editor of Environmental Science & Technology. This article originally appeared there in July 2004.