"Environmental groups are not perfect," wrote Christopher Palmer, an Audubon Society official, on the op-ed page of Aug. 8. He went on to list some of the faults he sees in the environmental movement -- including a tendency to "assume a tone of arrogance when talking to business" -- and suggested areas of cooperation between industry and the environmentalist movement. Here the vice chairman of the board of the Monsanto Company responds:
The recent offer of an olive branch to business by Christopher Palmer was a promising event, and one that our company -- and I suspect many other firms -- would like to see expanded.
"Environmentalists are not perfect," the article began, and, of course, few industrialists would have any difficulty agreeing with this admission. I hope these same businessmen are prepared to admit that, while our environmental conscience and performance improved during the past decade, room for further progress still exists.
For example, we often are guilty of the same uncompromising attitude in dealing with environmental groups that Palmer attributes to his colleagues. Business must get beyond thinking of environmentalists as obstructionist enemies. In fact, our interests do intersect: industry could not long prosper in a poisoned environment, and economic stagnation would cripple financial support for all public interest groups, including those working in the environmental area.
The way toward a more amicable relationship, in my judgment, lies in greater trust of one another's motives and in more frequent dialogue between us -- before an environmental question deteriorates into a battle-lines-drawn controversy.
Corporate management could facilitate better communication by designating a specific office or person as the principal liaison with environmental organizations. This responsibility lies in the environmental policy staff at Monsanto, but other offices, such as public affairs, may be better suited for this duty at other companies. This liaison office should be charged with providing environmentalists an accurate accounting of the company's activities and plans affecting the environment. This office also could serve as an official listening post for environmental concerns and as a conduit for making these known to top management.
Industry must improve its attitude toward environmentalists in another respect. Many businessmen are still prone to dismiss the opinions of environmentalists as mere romantic musings. Such a viewpoint is not only patronizing, but it often has been contradicted by the facts. The ranks of the environmental movement include some highly competent scientists and engineers. Their work sometimes has served to highlight unforeseen problems or to suggest new approaches that have resulted in better projects and policies.
Thus, the independent analyses of environmentalists have caused the country's dam builders to more carefully document the cost-benefit ratios supporting their work. Today many oil industry managers will concede that the trans-Alaska pipeline was made less prone to leakage or malfunction in large part because of the insistence of environmentalists on stringent design and construction standards.
Palmer outlined some areas for "alliance" between environmentalists and industry. These were joint lobbying, cooperative development of public policy and partnerships to market environmentally desirable products. Allow me to expand the list.
At to lobbying together (wouldn't this give some legislators pause!), I suspect many firms would welcome combining forces with environmentalists to the extent that we can make our interests coincide. It has been suggested that certain energy policy reforms may be of mutual interest. In addition, industry and environmental groups should begin searching for common concerns on the issues of groundwater protection, new waste disposal techniques and the application of research findings from fields such as biotechnology.
Teamwork to implement environmental policies and programs is especially needed. A few years ago, Monsanto and an environmental group talked of mounting a joint campaign for public education on the risks and benefits of chemicals. Despite a promising start, the project ultimately faded, primarily because of reluctance on the environmental group's part to be publicly associated with a chemical company.
But Palmer's peace proposal may signal that the time is ripe for new cooperative efforts. One that would greatly benefit the country is for environmental groups to join industry and government in assuring the public that waste disposal facilities meeting federal and local safety standards pose no threat to people's health and are an essential part of improved disposal practices.
I'm suggesting that environmentalists make the same communications and citizen-mobilization efforts on behalf of governmentally approved disposal facilities that they made in alerting the public to the dangers of haphazard waste disposal. I'm also urging companies generating significant amounts of hazardous waste to make a better effort at involving citizen and environmental groups in the development of their waste disposal plans. Industry must continue to search for ways to transform wastes into useful materials and for ways to do business that simply generate less waste.
Regarding the prospect of business partnerships with environmental groups, I can only say that industry always is on the lookout for new opportunities to meet a public need in a profitable manner. Of course, quite a few chemical companies and other firms that sometimes are targets of environmentalists' ire also derive a portion of their income from producing the hardware and chemicals that make certain types of air and water cleanup possible. But discussions with environmentalists may indeed yield additional pro-environment business possibilities. Palmer has suggested that we "sit down" to discuss the matter. We have plenty of extra chairs at Monsanto.
The time for a cease-fire between the environmental and business communities is long overdue. We've wasted too much of the country's time and economic ammunition in past battles that might have been prevented if both camps had tried harder to understand one another's concerns. Let's give the olive branch some additional nourishment and see if we can make it bear mutually beneficial fruit.