1 Environmental Protection
- Pamela Hill
What is the environment?
Various materials and conditions, some natural and some made by humans, affect life on earth. Taken together, they form the environment. Sunlight is part of the environment as is an ocean bed deep beneath the surface, or groundwater flowing through and under cracks in subterranean rocks and sand. The environment extends to the very end of the earth’s atmosphere. It includes the corner of Broadway and Forty-Second Street in New York City, as well as your living room and the furniture in it. In this book living things are part of the environment, but the insides of living things are not, although they might be in a book about the microbes that inhabit our bodies. Clearly, however, parts of the environment enter living things all the time—carried in the food humans and animals eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink; plants similarly take them in as they incorporate water, air, light, and soil for their growth and survival.
What is environmental protection?
Environmental protection is a relatively new idea. Fifty years ago colleges did not offer degrees in environmental science. Newspapers did not have columns on the environment. Lawyers did not practice environmental law. The branch of philosophy called environmental ethics did not exist. Corporations did not have environmental policies. Today all of these are common because environmental protection, however one defines it, has taken root around the world.
p. 2↵There is no universally agreed upon view of what constitutes environmental protection, however. Many different economic interests, philosophical perspectives, and cultural values come into play when considering it. Notions of environmental protection are debated vigorously in the United Nations, the US Congress, and other national assemblies; in the boardrooms of corporations and environmental public interest groups; and among individuals. Environmental protection can mean very different things to different people.
To many environmental policymakers environmental protection has meant keeping pollution levels down, and much attention—governmental, academic, individual—has been devoted to this important goal. Indeed, much of this book explores pollution, because it is a basic cause of our environmental problems. Now, however, many thinkers recognize the limitations of pollution control as it is usually handled, which is by limiting pollutant discharges into water and emissions into air from large industrial and municipal sources, by “permitting” (issuing permits for) only a fixed quantity of them. Rather, environmental protection is increasingly about sustainability, a much broader concept. It embraces concerns about entire ecosystems and about cumulative impacts that require assessing all the contributors to the environmental harms occurring in a particular location (or the entire world in the case of climate change) and reducing pollution from all of them. Applying this approach, a polluted urban river would be cleaned up not just by prohibiting factories and sewage treatment plants from discharging wastewater into it from pipes, but also by reducing runoff from nearby streets and agricultural runoff upstream, by prohibiting dumping used motor oil down storm drains that release their contents into the river, by disallowing dog feces in parks along the shore, and so forth. Cumulative health impacts might also be considered in setting environmental priorities and taking action. A population already burdened by pollution and low socioeconomic status might be a more appropriate candidate for better air pollution controls than a more advantaged population, and the more advantaged population might be a more appropriate candidate for a new waste incinerator than the already burdened one.
So environmental protection means—or should mean—reducing pollution, making sustainable choices, seeking holistic solutions, and distributing the burdens and benefits of industrialization fairly p. 3↵among all populations, considering their current situations, their contribution to the harms being addressed, and the resources available to them.
Why does the environment need protection?
The most obvious, if not the most self-serving, reason is that the human species needs the environment. This in some respects is a new concept because until less than one hundred years ago, the environment was thought to be by and large self-healing and simply too big, too venerable, too basic to be seriously undermined, especially by creatures such as humans—a progressive, adaptive, and essentially well-meaning species. Children need protection; property needs protection; countries need protection. But the environment?
From our vantage point in the twenty-first century such thinking is preposterous. Globally, it is now generally recognized that the environment needs protection. In the last hundred years there has been an exponential increase in the types and quantity of pollutants, some of which are synthetics we have created—newcomers to the planet whose long-term consequences we do not yet know. There has been explosive population growth, bringing increased demands for natural resources and competition for clean water and food in many parts of the world. A different phenomenon is also occurring in some places: affluence expressed by an excessive and unprecedented rate of consumption, and a remarkable indifference to wastes from that consumption, which clog our oceans and poison our groundwater. Climate change and its consequences, though particularly daunting, are just the latest entries in a long list of human-caused harms to the environment, from deforestation to smog, that have increasingly been the subject of policy debate and attempts at regulatory control worldwide.
Facing such assaults, the environment cannot be its own advocate—it needs human voices and human action.
How did protecting the environment become a societal concern?
For most of our history, humans have had a complex relationship with the environment. We have feared its storms and volcanoes, and p. 4↵its creatures, from lions to locusts. We have deified it with thunder and rain gods. We have manipulated it for millennia, rechanneling rivers for irrigation and burning forests to make way for crops. We have at the same time simply enjoyed and revered it, as our paintings, literature, music (such as Beethoven’s great Pastoral Symphony), and leisure activities demonstrate. Starting in the eighteenth century with the Industrial Revolution, we have increasingly plundered and polluted it. After World War II, as a result of technological advances and related commercial profits, we have continually altered it with new and poorly understood chemicals. Rarely, however, did people spend much effort protecting it. To be sure, there were isolated environmental protections. Kings fenced in the game they hunted, and ancient civilizations guarded water supplies from contamination. As early as 300 bce, an Indian treatise, Arthashastra, addressed at length human-made hazards to the environment. Broad awareness of the environment and its importance began to develop in the modern era during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when, in the United States, not-for-profit organizations such as the National Audubon Society and federal agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service were established, and people such as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt began to articulate environmental values.
But it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that environmental protection on a global scale became an important social value. That shift was quick and dramatic, and a good thing. Not often can one point to a single source of a shift like this. But here we can: it is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Writing in the introduction to a reprint of the book, then Vice President Al Gore put it this way: “Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history…. The publication of Silent Spring can properly be seen as the beginning of the modern environmental movement.”1 In Silent Spring Carson brought into focus for the first time the effects of chemicals primarily used to kill harmful insects. Such chemicals had become ubiquitous in the environment from spraying, but were also unwittingly poisoning birds, fish, and people. The silent spring alludes to lines from a poem by John Keats in which “the sedge is wither’d from the lake,/And no birds sing.”2 Many of the chemicals she described are now restricted or banned, including DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, and parathion.
p. 5↵Carson was attacked as an extremist, especially by the chemical companies profiting from the pollution she warned against. They heavily financed scientific research to rebut her findings (which have never been seriously disproven) and tried to suppress the book after excerpts appeared in the New Yorker. Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, two years after the book’s publication. In the final stages of her disease, her testimony in Congress paved the way for a decade of congressional action on environmental protection. Internationally, such organizations as the World Wildlife Fund emerged, and the United Nations commenced its long engagement with the environment starting with the first Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.
Carson’s work was not only a David and Goliath story; it was a clarion call that coalesced nicely with two other developments. One was an increasingly affluent and literate postwar population, which was not only reading the news but for the first time was watching it nightly on television. The other was some unmistakable signs from the environment itself that, to quote Miss Clavel in Madeline, “something is not right.”
One such sign was the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969. The Cuyahoga runs through Cleveland, Ohio and for years had been the repository of local industrial waste, sewage, and debris. The river was so permeated with these materials that it had caught fire several times, starting in 1936 when oil and garbage on the surface burst into flames because of a blowtorch spark. The largest, most costly fire on the river was actually in 1952, but it was a lesser one in 1969 that caught national attention when it was reported in many periodicals, including Time magazine, and televised on the evening news. It did not really matter that the riveting photograph Time used was from the 1952 fire. The point was made and the essence of the news story was true: rivers actually were burning and had been for a long time, directly as a result of pollution. The dramatic and counterintuitive picture of a river on fire grabbed national attention, including that of Congress. This image has remained in the annals of environmental protection ever since.
Another example is the Torrey Canyon, a supertanker that went aground in 1967 off the southwest coast of England. The tanker spilled about 120,000 tons of crude oil into the Atlantic and onto Cornwall, contaminating 120 miles of its shores and 50 miles of those p. 6↵of Brittany across the English Channel. The ecological, aesthetic, and economic effects were enormous. The only positive outcome was that like the Cuyahoga River fire, the Torrey Canyon became a symbol and wake-up call about the power of pollution as well as the unique dangers of oil spills, and the inadequacy of science and law to address them. It also became the paradigm for a recurring tragedy. The same results—ecological, aesthetic, economic—have followed in subsequent spills, such as the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in Alaska in 1989 and the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
By the 1960s the press was harvesting many stories of environmental problems amid growing public interest. Starting in the 1970s, environmental protection became an abiding value particularly in the United States, spawning a unique, bipartisan set of powerful environmental laws still in force. Richard Nixon, the president at the time, put it this way at the beginning of the decade in his State of the Union Address: “The great question of the 70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?”3 In 1970 he established the Environmental Protection Agency and gave it the responsibility to implement the new laws. After this promising beginning the United States has had a mixed environmental record. Fortunately, though, also in the 1970s, environmental values began to be the subject of significant concern and action globally, with leadership from the United Nations. This is especially so now as the entire world puzzles over climate change.
What is the Environmental Protection Agency?
The US Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) is the main government agency charged with administering the federal environmental laws in the United States. The EPA’s job boils down to the difficult task of converting the broad mandates in laws passed by Congress into regulations and programs that can be understood by the public and by those who need to follow them, mostly industries. In addition, the EPA distributes large sums of money to states and other entities for specific purposes described in the environmental p. 7↵laws, such as money to run state environmental programs or to build sewage treatment plants. These funds make possible much of the environmental protection that the EPA oversees and the United States enjoys.
President Nixon created the EPA by an executive order, bringing together pieces of federal departments that previously had elements of environmental protection responsibility among their larger mandates. It is an independent regulatory agency and part of the executive branch of government. The president appoints its administrator with Senate approval. The EPA has a headquarters in Washington, DC in charge of policy and regulatory development, more than a dozen labs, and ten regional offices responsible for enforcement and for working with the states on program implementation. The EPA employs about 17,000 people, including scientists, engineers, policy analysts, lawyers, and economists.
The EPA’s independent status, notwithstanding its connection to the executive branch, is intended to protect its objectivity and the scientific basis of its programs and policies; both are highly valued within the agency. However, the agency is often buffeted by politics. An extreme example occurred during the Ronald Reagan administration when career staff clashed repeatedly with high-level political appointees. Similarly, during the George W. Bush administration the views of policymakers in the White House and political appointees within the agency especially concerning climate change created serious problems for some career staff.
Do most countries have environmental agencies similar to the EPA?
Yes. For example, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection performs functions similar to the EPA and has collaborated with the EPA for over three decades, as have many other governments’ environmental agencies. The Umweltbundesamt has been Germany’s main environmental protection agency since 1974. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation is Russia’s EPA equivalent. Although many countries have high-level governmental agencies whose missions broadly concern environmental protection, they vary in focus, structure, and efficacy.
Environmental protection has been embedded as a value in our global social fabric at least since the 1970s. The question becomes, then, what values to apply when solving specific environmental issues. Consider this oversimplified scenario: a proposed railway line would run through a wetland on its way from one major city to another, reducing the number of cars and pollution on the road and getting passengers to and from the cities much faster. Should the railway line be approved? Those who take a human-centered (anthropocentric) view value the human benefits from the railway line and would say yes. Those who value the nonhuman benefits of the wetland (such as wildlife habitat) and want to protect it would say no (unless saving it helps humans, as well it might). This is a fundamental values divide in environmental policymaking: human interests versus broader ecological interests. It raises the moral question of whether the human species can do whatever it wants to the environment to advance its own interests, or whether it is only one among many living things and has no right to destroy parts of the planet and deplete its resources for its own benefit at the expense of other species—whether, in fact, it has an obligation to protect these other living things.
At least in western moral philosophy, the human-centered perspective tends to win out: Aristotle himself said that “nature has made all … things for the sake of humans.”4 The divine command to the first humans in the Bible is to “fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds in the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Moreover, the dominance of the economic lens in deciding environmental issues tends to promote human-centered environmental values. But there is significant counterbalance. Some biblical scholars, for example, point to stewardship concepts in the Bible. Many indigenous peoples such as American Indian tribes manifest a strong and abiding spiritual attachment to and respect for nature. The ecological values of the nineteenth century American transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau linked nature directly with divinity, and are still influential, as is the environmental ethic of thinkers like Carson and Aldo Leopold, famous for his land ethic. In 2015, in his encyclical Laudato Si’, p. 9↵Pope Francis reiterated remarks of his immediate predecessors and other Christian leaders that degradation of the environment is a sin.
The relationship between human-centered interests and ecological ones finds its way into jurisprudence. Mineral King Valley in 1969 was a beautiful area and game refuge in the Sierra Nevada mountains when the Disney Company proposed to build a resort there. Environmental groups tried to block it using a now famous legal argument: trees and other living creatures threatened with harm should have standing to sue in court, much like an orphaned child, with lawyers representing their interests. The legal theory did not win the day, but it received much attention in the US Supreme Court where the case ended up. The notion that “trees have standing” appeared in the dissent penned by Justice William O. Douglas and joined by Justices Brennan and Blackmun,5 and remains a provocative reminder of the fragility of a natural environment that has no voice, as well as of the stark conflict between economic and ecological values.
Environmental values and their role in environmental problem solving are much more complex than the human-centered versus natural world dichotomy described above. Consider another scenario: Cape Wind was an ambitious project that would have generated energy from many giant wind turbines off Cape Cod, Massachusetts in Nantucket Sound. The debates about Cape Wind swirled with disparate sets of values: habitat values (birds and whales); religious and cultural values (Native American burial grounds); aesthetic values (the view from the shore); economic values (jobs); and sustainability values (renewable energy).
What is sustainability?
This concept, often associated with development, arrived very late to the environmental protection lexicon. But it has become a core, and challenging, environmental value. A foundational definition appears in the 1987 report to the United Nations from the World Commission on Environment and Development: development is sustainable when it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their p. 10↵own needs.”6 Sustainability, then, is about the future, and that is what makes it such an elusive and difficult goal. Long-term planning for humans does not extend more than a few years; a long-range business strategic plan, for instance, rarely looks beyond ten. Sustainable development, agriculture, and energy policy, and any other sustainable environmental practices, necessarily extend beyond the lifetimes of the people considering them. Sustainability is not just making sure a particular marine food source is not fished out of existence and lost as a profitable market, although it includes this small goal.
While retaining its original intergenerational aspect, policymakers now are adding additional features to the concept of sustainability. The Plan of Implementation of the 2002 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development states that it will “promote the integration of the three components of sustainable development—economic development, social development and environmental protection—as interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars.”7 These three pillars of sustainability have become important elements for environmental policymakers who are trying to implement it.
As a practical matter, sustainability means improving economic conditions, reducing poverty, adhering to fundamental fairness, and achieving a healthy environment—all on a global scale and far into the future. If pollution control was the central concern of environmental policymakers in the late twentieth century, sustainability is the central concern now.
Why is environmental protection so hard to achieve?
We can take many straightforward (if not easily accomplished) steps collectively and individually that would help reverse the environmental degradation of the last few hundred years, such as energy conservation, lifestyle changes, aggressive pollution controls, consumption reduction, and innovative technologies. Still, we have a very hard time taking these steps. Given the risks and the payoffs, one wonders why. Here are six reasons.
First, people have few natural economic incentives to protect the environment because environmental resources often are free, or seem to be. The classic parable “The Tragedy of the Commons,” p. 11↵written by Garrett Hardin in 1968 and widely recognized as instructive by environmental economists, lays out the problem. Hardin’s commons is a pasture open to all. For years it offers enough space and grass for all herders to easily graze their animals. Because of the success of the herders, however, the time comes when the number of animals exceeds the commons’ capacity. Yet because the commons’ resources are free, the herders gain nothing individually by reducing their herds. So each herder decides to keep adding animals. In Hardin’s words, “therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”8 Hardin’s commons is a metaphor for our oceans, air, wildlife, and soils, all seemingly so abundant. The message is that environmental protection requires collective action and control of self-interest, both very hard to achieve.
Even if incentives such as taxes, values, or coercive laws succeed in changing behavior in an environmentally protective way—a way protective of the commons—a second problem creates additional challenges. It is the gap in time that frequently exists between when environmental degradation starts and when people become alarmed by it: environmental problems typically sneak up on us—they do not normally jump out and bite us. This lag time has often been expressed through the famous boiled frog allegory. If you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out and save itself, but if you slowly warm up the water the frog will remain there and boil to death. Whether or not this is accurate scientifically, it is on point as a metaphor for the phenomenon of climate change as well as almost all other human-made environmental problems. It demonstrates that to protect the environment people must perceive and act upon dangers that seem speculative and distant. Unfortunately, our species is not wired for this sort of action. With the fight or flight mentality we inherited from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our instincts are to react to present danger, not the insidious, incremental, often imperceptible threats to the environment from our own activity. The environment is hard to protect because its degradation is so stealthy that humans are not usually fearful enough to act, as we would if our homes were on fire.
p. 12↵A third problem is that many actions with a negative impact on the environment are simply not felt by those who create them. When they do become apparent, often the people harmed are in no position to prevent the impacts. The people benefitting, experiencing no harm and often far away, have no incentive to reduce the harm. Dioxin is a toxic waste byproduct of the process at paper mills that makes paper white, a feature of paper that people all over the world enjoy. For years dioxin was discharged into rivers, such as the Penobscot River in Maine, and ended up in the fish people ate there. Most directly affected were members of the Penobscot Indian Nation, whose reservation is composed of islands on the river, and who for centuries have fished for food there, ingesting dioxin as a result. The consumers of white paper, on the other hand—the vast majority of whom do not eat much if any fish from the Penobscot River, who live nowhere near the paper mills, and who know very little about how paper is made—are unaware of the water-quality issues imbedded in the product they use.
Fourth, environmental problems and solutions are not obvious. In most instances uncertainty is uncomfortably present as we work on them: when, in fact, will the planet’s climate get too warm to support life as we know it? Is it really too dangerous to swim in water with high levels of bacteria, and if so, how high do the levels need to be to close a major beach on a hot Sunday in August? Should cancer-causing substances contained in products we enjoy be prohibited altogether even though the exact nature of their risks is unclear?
Fifth, in the United States at least, environmental issues have become increasingly partisan and political, in stark contrast to the bipartisanship they enjoyed in the 1970s. It is very hard these days to get the US Congress to rally behind them: practically every environmental issue in the twenty-first century has become snarled in political wrangling, from the Keystone pipeline to the future of coal.
Sixth, the successes of the early years of the environmental movement were of the low-hanging fruit kind. Reducing pollution from large factories, although by no means easy to achieve, is much less difficult than grappling with global climate change or groundwater pollution from thousands of small sources. Yet these and similar issues are what confront us today.
p. 13↵At bottom, though, the environment is hard to protect because it requires setting aside self-interest, seeing beyond the present, thinking and acting globally, and understanding the deep connection between a healthy environment and human progress, even human survival. It also tends to elude solutions, as evidenced in the answer to the next question.
What does the idea of unintended consequences have to do with environmental protection?
The idea of unintended consequences describes an outcome different from what was planned, expected, or wanted—something that happens all the time. Although the outcome can be beneficial, it can also be detrimental; this unfortunately is how the notion usually arises in the context of environmental protection. The environment is a very complicated place, and trying to correct injuries to it can also be complicated. Indeed, the environmental protection movement is the response not to planned assaults on the environment—no ordinary person or industry sets out to pollute the air or water—but to the unintended consequences of human activities that had benign goals. Who could have intended climate change to be the consequence of industrialization? Or water pollution to be the consequence of chemical fertilizers?
The unintended consequences of the particular responses to such harms themselves are also telling. They demonstrate just how difficult environmental protection is, and how important it is to develop answers to environmental problems holistically, because it is the linear responses that have often produced additional problems. No one, for example, intends to send cancer-causing dioxin into the air from municipal incinerators designed to get rid of garbage, but many of them do. The US Congress did not intend to create pollution by enacting the early federal environmental protection laws. However, as Congress observed in the findings section of the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (the federal law addressing solid and hazardous waste), “as a result of the Clean Air Act, the Water Pollution Control Act [the Clean Water Act] and other Federal and State laws respecting public health and the environment, greater amounts of solid waste (in the form of sludge and other pollution p. 14↵treatment residues) have been created.”9 What this means is that air and water pollution controls often create byproducts that cause a land pollution problem big enough to require additional federal attention.
As forward-looking and flexible as environmental laws have proven to be, they do not normally embrace the idea that everything actually is connected to everything else and so should be regulated that way. To correct this defect, some environmental thinkers have proposed that these laws should be recast into one big environmental protection statute that better anticipates such things as unintended consequences, cumulative risks, and synergistic effects.