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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Candidate Profile: Steve Forbes

Air Date: Week of

In the first of Living On Earth’s series of profiles on the major presidential candidates, Pippin Ross examines the environmental philosophy of Steve Forbes. The free-market Republican thinks individual citizens and corporations, not government agencies, should be in charge of protecting the environment.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Steve Forbes is running for president again, and his large personal fortune is making him a force to be reckoned with during the early Republican primary season. Mr. Forbes, a writer and publisher of the magazine that bears his family name, believes that a deregulated government stimulates economic growth. And he applies this Reagan-style laissez-faire approach to protecting the environment as well. Without costly federal mandates, Steve Forbes says, the private sector will be more inclined to protect valuable natural resources. Pippin Ross has the first of our series of profiles of the major presidential candidates.

(Singing in the background; milling voices)

ROSS: The lobby of Forbes Magazine, New York City's Fifth Avenue. For 30 years Steve Forbes has been a writer here, an editor, and he's now CEO and editor-in-chief. He's on a leave of absence from this venerable 82-year-old business magazine. The only sign of Steve Forbes is the lobby's collection of priceless Faberge eggs he inherited from his father. They're a symbol of the enormous family wealth allowing a man who's never held political office to make his second run for president.

MAN: Please help me to welcome a man whose commitment to limited government is unwavering. Candidate for GOP nomination for president of the United States, Mr. Steve Forbes.


ROSS: Thirty-seven blocks uptown, inside a chandeliered room at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, Steve Forbes is the keynote speaker at a lunch seminar being put on by the Cato Institute, a libertarian public policy research group espousing individual liberty, limited government and free markets. Forbes is a regular on the group's roster of speakers.

FORBES: I have prepared remarks, and so I'll do to this fine speech what Washington does with your money, and that is throw it away.

(Audience laughter, followed by applause)

ROSS: Tossing his prepared remarks to the floor, the usually reserved Mr. Forbes is uncharacteristically relaxed, knowing that today he is speaking to an audience who shares his mistrust in big government and his belief that individual citizens can be entrusted to run the country.

FORBES: We don't need a nanny to do it. We don't need a bureaucrat to do it. We need more basic freedoms to do it. Those words of Lincoln: ‘A new birth of freedom.’

ROSS: Mr. Forbes has borrowed that phrase from Lincoln, a new birth of freedom, as the title of his new book. Here at the luncheon there is a copy at every place setting, along with a copy of the Constitution. In his chapter called "Environmental Stewardship," Mr. Forbes relies heavily on the Cato Institute's libertarian environmental policies. He calls them "a new vision." Steve Moore is one of the Cato Institute's policy directors.

MOORE: I think Steve understands that the best custodian of a clean and healthy environment is the private sector, and that over government regulation can oftentimes be the enemy of a good and healthy environment.

ROSS: At the heart of Mr. Forbes' vision of environmental stewardship is the belief that left to its own devices, the private sector will protect and replenish the resources it uses. He's harshly critical of federal agencies like the EPA. During a recent press conference, Mr. Forbes attacked the agency, saying it concocts doomsday scenarios to justify its existence.

FORBES: And we can certainly do better by getting away from some of the crazy junk science that has permeated the EPA and other regulators.

ROSS: He says the EPA's air quality standards are a case in point. The science behind them is currently being disputed in a controversial court case. But it's unclear precisely how Mr. Forbes plans to motivate the private sector to stop polluting without federal regulations. Environmentalists are frustrated by this lack of specifics.

MAN: Here's Steve Forbes with today's commentary. The phrase "renewable energy..."

ROSS: Sometimes environmentalists are baffled when Mr. Forbes speaks. In one of his daily internet commentaries, Mr. Forbes suggests oil, like food, is a renewable resource.

FORBES: Cornell University researcher Thomas Gold believes that oil is sort of a dark syrup produced far beneath the Earth's surface under intense heat and pressure. If this is true, we may not need to worry about the Earth running out of oil...

ROSS: Mr. Forbes went on to take a shot at environmentalists.

(Background music)

FORBES: For centuries, technophobes have predicted the disappearance of the Earth's food and energy supplies. Today, America produces so much food that it exports it. Meanwhile, rumors of petroleum's demise also may turn out to be greatly exaggerated. Something to think about. I'm Steve Forbes.

SCOTT: If you repeat something that's strange often enough and make it sound convincing, you might fool some of the people. But I don't really think too many people in this country think of oil as a renewable resource.

ROSS: Geologist John Scott is an editor and fundraiser for the environmental group Clean Water Action. Mr. Scott says he agrees with the idea of incentives for property owners who don't pollute. So during a Republican town meeting in New Hampshire he pressed Mr. Forbes for details on how it would work, and what it would cost.

SCOTT: What I'd like to know is, where in your economic plan are the pollution fees or other marketplace incentives that will get polluters to clean up their act?

FORBES: Thank you very much for your question. As a father of five daughters and my wife Sabina is here tonight, obviously I have a keen interest...

ROSS: Mr. Forbes never answered the question. And the exchange alarmed Mr. Scott. He's worried about what would happen in federal oversight is dismantled.

SCOTT: I mean, I don't think anyone would be deceived into thinking that if Exxon was regulated less, they would pollute less. It's only logical that if you ask polluters to pay for the damage that they cause, they'll eventually figure out a way to cause less damage.

ROSS: Many of Mr. Forbes' proposals are seen as half-baked or irrelevant, fueling a perception he's a dilettante dabbling in politics. For example, Mr. Forbes writes in his book about President Theodore Roosevelt's successful plea to big business to stop clear-cutting at the turn of the century. Mr. Forbes believes this "bully pulpit environmentalism" could still work today. However, Theodore Roosevelt IV, the president's great-great-grandson and the current chair of the League of Conservation Voters, says we can no longer rely solely on individuals doing the right thing, when it comes to global pollution.

ROOSEVELT: Take an issue like clean water, and it's very clear that can't be decided on a local level. You can't have Town A that is up on the upper end of the reaches of the water saying oh, we're going to have dirty water because we don't care; pollute. But the towns down below saying oh, we want clean water, and they do their very best to clean up what they've got. It's got to be done on a national basis.

ROSS: Criticism that his ideas are flawed or outdated hasn't stopped Forbes from rallying dyed-in-the-wool conservatives like those in abundance at the Waldorf Astoria luncheon. After his speech, one woman said Mr. Forbes is the only candidate who understands that moral people don't need costly mandates.

WOMAN: The environment has to take care of itself, and smart people will. You don't need government to tell you how to take care of your area. We clean our own house.

ROSS: Mr. Forbes continues to crisscross the country delivering speeches based on his book. His message does appear to resonate with some voters. Four years ago Mr. Forbes surprised political observers by winning primaries in Arizona and Delaware. This time around, he finished second in Iowa's straw poll in August. Still, most consider the candidate a long shot. And the $50 million he's prepared to spend to stay in the race may wind up being a hefty price tag for what amounts to a book tour. For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross in New York.



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