Thursday, April 27, 2006
Here's a fun fact: According to the California Air Resources Board, lawn mower engines produce, gallon for gallon, 93 times the amount of air pollution of automobile engines. There are several reasons for this, but the big one is: Lawn mower engines don't have catalytic converters. And why not? Briggs & Stratton, the dominant manufacturer in the motorized vegetable grooming industry, opposes the idea.
Lawn mower manufacturers sort of flew under the radar during the old dying-of-emphysema air pollution scare. They'd like to stay under the radar because they don't want to take any money currently invested in profit and put it back into public health. You'll recall we went through this with automobiles. Now it's the same old, same old, part deux. Why should they be part of the solution? They're part of the problem; that's their corporate culture.
One of the arguments that B&S made was that catalytic converters would cause the engines to overheat, burst into flame and injure blameless homeowners. We'll get back to that.
Briggs & Stratton has two plants in Missouri and, guess what, a senator from Missouri has taken up its case. Christopher Bond, a Republican, has been fighting against regulations for lawn mower engines since the century began. He has had a particular problem with California because our air pollution standards are higher than the national standards. He cut a deal with Dianne Feinstein (yes, that one) to hold off implementation of the California standards until studies could be done.
One of these studies was conducted by the National Research Council, and it focused on the policy implications of having California's pollution regulations be tougher than the national ones. Another was by the EPA itself, studying whether catalytic converters did in fact cause lawn mower engines to burst into flame.
Those studies are now complete. In the words of Felicity Barringer of the New York Times, "the research council report was a paean to California's regulatory leadership. And the EPA said the new standards for lawn and garden equipment could be met safely."
So Bond had the two reports that he asked for. Unfortunately, they did not reach the conclusions Bond wanted them to reach. So what did he do? In the grand tradition of American politics, he denounced the reports. Through a spokesman, he complained that writing the reports "was not a public process. There was no input or comment by members of the public or stakeholders." This is why politics and science are so frequently at odds. Science is not a matter of public input; it does not work according to democratic principles. Science is an autocracy of the facts. Either the motors catch fire or they don't -- it's not a liberal or conservative issue. It's not "on the one hand, this" and "on the other hand, that" sort of deal. (Although, to be fair, I suspect it would be correct to say that the panel did not hear from members of the public who thought engines catching fire was a good thing. A definite anti-fire bias. I don't think that's what Bond is worried about, though.)
Free-market capitalism grew up doing certain things in certain ways. These ways were focused on short-term effects. That's not a bad thing by itself, but the modern system has been in place for more than a century, and long-term effects are becoming important -- long-term effects like dirty air, dirty water, ozone depletion, climate change, like that. Unfortunately, our political institutions are controlled by corporations, and corporations continue to see only the short term -- a situation aggravated by the demands of stockholders for higher profits.
In a perfect world, the elected representatives would be on the side of the people they represent, but this is not a perfect world. Christopher Bond is apparently indifferent to the quality of the air his constituents breathe, but he is definitely interested in protecting Briggs & Stratton. He will introduce amendments, propose studies, work to get bills killed in committee, do anything other than tell his corporate bosses: "Look, save us all some trouble, install the damn catalytic converters."
While they're temporizing back there in D.C., you might consider this -- small engines (not just lawn mowers -- leaf blowers, chain saws, stuff like that) put in excess of 22 tons of smog-forming chemicals into the air each day in California. That's equivalent to the gunk produced by 800,000 cars a day. That's the day I'm writing this and the day you're reading it and the next day too. That's May and June and July. Christopher Bond has a lot to answer for, although not in this lifetime.