The Back Page

Vol. 26 No. 3

Mr. Ryan is Assistant Regional Counsel in the EPA Region 10 Boise Office and a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment. The views expressed here are Mr. Ryan’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of EPA.

With the presidential race already in full swing, one of the recurring debates among the candidates is how much federal regulation is appropriate. Some argue that we must reduce our regulatory burden in order to spur job growth. That argument leads to the obvious question: What would this country look like without all those allegedly confusing, job-killing rules? If we want to see what a modern industrial society with lax regulations looks like, China is a instructive example.

China has both serious air and water problems, but let’s look at just the water pollution. Approximately 40 percent of the water in China is unusable for any purpose. China’s waters are so polluted that nearly half of the water in the country cannot be used for irrigation or industrial processes, much less for human consumption. It’s completely ruined. Another 30 percent is considered highly contaminated, suitable for crop irrigation but little else. Putting aside what this amount of pollution is doing to the biota, less than a third of China’s water supply is acceptable for most uses. Imagine if only one third of the water in the United States were clean enough for drinking, swimming, or manufacturing.

The Chinese have recognized the problem and are working to fix it, for they must. They are running out of water. The rapid urbanization of China, along with the massive shift from a largely agrarian economy to an industrial society, has put enormous strains on the water supply system. The drinking water source for a large city was lost in 2007 due to a cyanobacteria outbreak caused by excessive eutrophication, forcing the government to import bottled water for millions of people. The growing middle class is discovering the riches of modern life and beginning to demand clean air and water. But to get there, China needs to tame the beast that has created the newfound wealth and jobs. The country’s growth has come at a monstrous cost to the environment and quality of life. The Chinese government now recognizes it needs to implement a modern regulatory program or it will be in very serious trouble in the near future.

The current debate in the United States over jobs and the costs of regulation to the private sector focuses solely on the cost side of the equation. No one seriously disputes that regulation is an expense to society. What is missing is any discussion of the benefits of our regulatory system. In America we drink the water from our taps without a second thought. We jump into our rivers and lakes without fear of getting sick as a result. Our factories have clean water to use for their manufacturing. None of this is taken for granted in much of rest of the world. As I have argued before, let’s have the debate, but let the debate be truly fair and balanced.


  • About NR&E

  • Additional Resources

  • Contact Us

Stay Connected


Book: International Environmental Law: The Practitioner's Guide to the Laws of the Planet