Emission controls in California - 06 October 1989

We all know, do we not, what is meant by pollution.

Well, I've found that when it comes to old words that suddenly become fashionable, it never does, as somebody said, to ignore Dr Johnson.

So I turned to his massive dictionary, put out at intervals from 1755 on, and find this, "to pollute, to make unclean in a religious sense, to defile". And by way of illustration, he quotes from John Milton a shocking picture of the first sinner, Eve, and how she attempted to hide her guilt.

By the way, it was news to me that the Garden of Eden had temperatures below 32°F. Well, according to John Milton, "Eve wooed the gentle air, to hide her guilty front with innocent snow, and on her naked shame, pollute with sinful blame, the saintly veil of maiden white, to throw".

We've come a long way from that 200-year-old definition, though maybe it is still retained in the liturgy of some religions. Today, the word "pollution" instantly calls up a picture in the mind, or on the telly, of a city skyline dense with smog. As today's Oxford Dictionary puts it, "Pollute: to contaminate or defile man's environment".

This past week, the House of Representatives passed two bills, one having to do with atmospheric pollution, the other – not all that far away from Dr Johnson's definition – with moral pollution.

The first bill, to be precise, was passed by a sub-committee of the house but unanimously and, since both parties approve of it and the White House is happy with it, there's little question that it will become law. It has to do with reducing the poisonous fumes that issue from the tailpipes of motor cars.

And, if that sounds like a fairly humdrum – I almost said pedestrian – reform, we have only to consider what it's going to do to the entire automobile industry in this country to appreciate the comment of the members of the house sub-committee on health and the environment that it represents "a landmark in the history of pollution control". Emission controls on the nation, as tough as those already in force in California, which has been a pioneer in such things, is about nine years' ahead of the country and 20 years ahead of Europe.

I ought to respond to the question that's already springing to your mind. "If California controls are so great, how come Los Angeles is the smog capital of the country?" Well, to begin with, Los Angeles has more cars than people. Literally. About 3.5 million population and close to 4 million registered motor vehicles.

And since motor vehicles are responsible for 50% of all smog, Los Angeles obviously has an appalling start on the rest of us in the brewing of smog. But since California adopted the controls which are now to be enforced nationally, Los Angeles has shown more improvement in reducing smog density than any other city.

What the new law will require of car manufacturers sounds deceptively simple. A canister, or some other equipment, that will sharply cut down the life of the three villains: carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide. This equipment must be built to last twice as long as is now required in California, namely 100,000 miles.

The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that the new equipment will add about $100 to the price of a car. You may be sure that when the new models get under way, it will cost much more than that. The controls are to be eased in between 1994 models and 1996. By then, all cars – we'd better say motor vehicles – on the road must observe the strictest controls that are to be set. Add $500.

So the theory of the law says that seven years from now, any car owner can be prosecuted whose car does not abide by the new controls. At the moment, there are 150 million motor vehicles in America and it will strike any, and all of us, who are not considering buying a new car, that our present buggy will be punishable.

As one cheerless motor car manufacturer put it, "First there will be a loss in fuel economy, second an enormous problem of recall, calling in all the cars that don't meet the new requirements. Third, to achieve an effect as drastic as the controls anticipate, you'd have, in the next seven years, to call in every car made before 1994."

The only people who feel a glow of pleasure at this prospect are the potential members of a new government bureaucracy – it would have to be a huge one – that would go out and flag down something short of 150 million car owners.

Though none of the committee men who unanimously passed the bill cares to look ahead to that policing nightmare, oddly nobody, so far, has protested that the government is proposing to move in on a citizen's rights.

When the seatbelt requirement came in, there were (and still are) people who filed suits claiming that their Constitutional rights, freedom of assembly, were being invaded. I should remind you that the seatbelt law is not a federal law. It's up to each state, and there's still a flock of states that have not been able to make the wearing of seatbelts compulsory.

This new law is federal, a national law. And I have no doubt that some lawyer, for a motor car manufacturer perhaps, is already busy poring over the Constitution, article by article, clause by clause, trying to spot where it says, "the liberty of the subject with regard to automobile emission controls shall not be infringed".

The second bill, about what I call moral pollution, which I'm sure you've been waiting for, is, unlike most bills, nothing that has been gestating for a long time. It was prompted only a few months ago by two public exhibitions in Chicago of the work of two professional photographers.

Not to beat about the bush with prim language, let me say that the exhibits that caused the rumpus were photographs by one man of homosexual acts and of children in explicit sexual poses and one photograph by the other man of a crucifix floating in a jar of urine.

Of course, many ordinary citizens of Chicago were offended, but this private outcry sparked a small roar of outrage in the Congress. Why? Because the two exhibitions had been paid for – funded, as we say – by a non-partisan government agency, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities.

The National Endowment does extensive and admirable work in promoting, backing, sponsoring, every sort of artistic endeavour from exhibitions to television documentaries of many kinds, sustains regional opera houses, gives grants and scholarships to historians, painters, musicians, architects and scholars, so forth.

Well, it turned out that the two offending exhibitions had been funded by the National Endowment to the tune of $45,000. The fuhrer of the Congressional fury was Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican and a conservative of the bluest hue.

He at once drafted a bill to prohibit federal aid monies for obscene or indecent art and for all works that might offend a particular religion, or any ethnic group, any race, any age group, or the disabled, of any kind.

Well, from its birth, this bill was dead on arrival, when senators got up to remark that it would prohibit the publication or staging of enumerable classics, from Rabelais through Chaucer, Shakespeare. How about The Merchant of Venice and Othello? And on and on, into any work in which a bad guy was a Catholic, a Protestant, a cripple, a white man, a black man, and, under the age group prohibition, young or middle-aged or old. Senator Helms' initiative, as it was called, went down in a flood of ridicule and sarcasm.

But a great majority of the house, responding to the constituents, remained incensed at the discovery that the American taxpayer had paid for the exhibition of small nude girls and boys demonstrating sexual poses.

There were congressmen who were opposed to any bill that would censor anything. Arts councils, civil liberties groups and many artists screamed "censorship", but the wisdom, or the prejudice, of the House of Representatives was against them.

The prevailing argument was that the government cannot interfere in the private exhibition of anything that the laws of a particular state don't prohibit as obscene.

Long ago, the United States Supreme Court ducked any national definition of obscenity but left it up to a state, a city, to decide what would be likely to offend the local community. Some communities, it appears, are immune to offence. A judge in Los Angeles recently dismissed criminal charges against the distributor of a film very explicitly showing a gang rape in a mental hospital. The judge wasn't sure, he said, whether it would pollute, offend the average citizen.

Well, the house passed by 381 to 41 a bill which forbids federal funds through the National Endowment being used for any work, exhibition, that the Endowment officials consider obscene. And the bill specifies sado-masochism and the sexual exploitation of children or others engaged in sex acts.

This bill is demonstrably approved by a great majority of average citizens and satisfies all but the last-ditch civil libertarians and those artists, so-called, who warn us that the denial of government money to any painting, photography, film or theatrical representation of anything human beings are capable of is a sure sign that America is about to succumb to a police state.

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