Environmental forecast for the 21st century

Environmental policy shift: From industry to individual?

By Donald A. Carr, JD, and Chuca Meyer, JD
American Bar Association

We look across the arbitrary thousand-year marker at the environmental issues and trends that may dominate the agenda in the new age, in part because there seems to be some obsessive-compulsive mania to do so in every aspect of human endeavor. However, by pure coincidence, this is in fact a good time to take stock of gains and losses. It has been one full generation since we began to get serious about addressing the major pollution problems of industrial society, and four generations since a conservation ethic was incubated during the Theodore Roosevelt presidency.

Nature conquered
As we look over the last century in the United States, we must start with an observation about how far we have come. Until the TR era, nature was something to be conquered, and all species below Homo sapiens were fair game to be hunted, collected or extirpated where convenient. There were three generations of episodic progress (distracted by two world wars and a baby boom) in reforming that non-sustainable proposition. Then, in the 1970s and '80s an entirely new federal regulatory regime emerged. There was "command and control" based generally on individual media: air, water and waste. And of course there was Superfund - a radical concept of retroactive, joint and several liability. While these programs were heralded as a new philosophy, that "the polluter pays," in reality, most of the environmental mandates were directed at big industry - the perceived devil behind the action-forcing catastrophes. Love Canal, the flaming Cuyahoga, kepone in the James River and Bhopal convinced Congress and the public o f the need to impose controls on industry.

As a result, the United States is well along the road to a healthier environment. People are swimming and fishing in waters that were toxic just a few decades ago. Air quality in many cities is improving. Many contaminated sites are being cleaned up. Industry generally has its discharges, emissions and hazardous waste under control. The same can be said of much of the European Union and the industrialized world. Many multinational companies have adopted a high worldwide standard for themselves.

Dealing with diffuse sources
We have dealt with the easy part. Major industrial sources are discrete, easily identifiable, and essentially have the money and ability to adapt to the command and control environment. Over the next generation however, it will become clear that control of industrial sources cannot be the primary target of environmental policy.

The most troublesome sources are now the diffuse ones. The critical issues demand that individuals make different behavior and lifestyle choices. We must deal more effectively with the automotive emissions of ozone precursors. Our congested roads are dominated by single occupancy vehicles (and more and more gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles). Our air and water quality, and solid and hazardous waste management problems, as well as wetlands and endangered species habitat issues, are increasingly a function of urban sprawl and transportation patterns. Diffuse pollution from agriculture, big and small, has until recently been mostly ignored. Pig and chicken farms create serious water quality problems, and the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides is now more deleterious to sensitive water bodies than industrial source discharges.

There are still industries with room to improve - the extractive sector has had a free pass for the last generation, and mining wastes need greater attention in some circumstances. But the real challenge is getting individuals to change their consumptive proclivities. We also must expensively renovate old infrastructure, such as city sewer systems overwhelmed in heavy rains and overflowing with untreated sewage.

Kicking away crutches
One of the morals is that we have to begin to dispense with the crutch of blaming the dirty dozen industry for the plight of the environment. We should also begin to be more judicious in the prosecutorial discretion of criminalizing industry actors' mistakes unless they are willful; we have gone way overboard in that righteousness.

The Kyoto Protocol is the mother of all environmental problems for the next decade. The concerns about the potentially fundamental alteration of the atmosphere can only be met if there is action by everyone, because everyone in the world, in the developed and developing countries alike, shares the responsibility. As with so many of our purely domestic problems, economic incentives will be the key. Innovative market measures, such as emissions trading and clean development mechanisms, may succeed where command and control will become anachronistic.

The transforming power of chemicals

By Lawrence H. Keith, PhD
American Chemical Society

In the beginning there were chemicals, and in the end there will still be chemicals. In between, there is man. Chemistry as a science did not exist in ancient times, although man possessed some knowledge of many subjects, some of which now belong to chemistry. The Egyptians used chemicals over 5,000 years ago, but did not identify use of them as a separate science. The ancient Greeks recognized a primitive form of chemicals as earth, water and fire more than 2,500 years ago. Atoms and elements came along later as concepts; as recently as 1,000 years ago, alchemists were preoccupied with trying to change lead to gold (not a terribly useful objective, with today's price of gold). However, by the turn of the 20th century, chemistry was a science in its own right - oxygen and other key elements and chemicals had been identified much earlier, gunpowder had long ago been invented by the Chinese, petroleum products were beginning to be used commercially, and Germany was leading the development of chemistry as a p remier science, with the United States and other countries in close pursuit.

In the 20th century the impact of chemicals has increased dramatically. Man realized that everything physical, including himself, was composed of chemicals. There were numerous important breakthroughs in chemistry.

Not just quantum leaps
However, we tend to think of these breakthroughs in terms of quantum events, such as the invention of plastics; the advent of the atomic and hydrogen bombs; the production of manmade transuranium elements; and the development of penicillin, antibiotics, vitamins, AZT and countless other important pharmaceuticals. But there were many more chemical-related developments that continue to play critical roles in our daily lives. Some of these include the development of chemicals used to produce lasers, computer chips, pesticides and herbicides.

Predicting the impact of chemicals in the next 100 years is a difficult task. Consider a person at the turn of the 20th century trying to do this job. Do you think he or she would have been able to include the impact of chemicals that are used with lasers, computers, television, interstellar rockets, modern drugs and so on? Of course not! The problem is that there will be chemicals developed in the next 100 years of which we have absolutely no concept today.

Green chemicals
Nevertheless, there are some predictions that I will make which may reflect the future impact of some chemicals over the next 100 years:

  • Chemicals used in commerce will be "greener," i.e., safer for use.
  • Recognition (and solution) of problems with endocrine disruptors will reduce chemical pollution drastically through the use of "green" chemicals and recycling of chemical wastes.
  • There will be more "exotic" combinations of organic chemicals with atoms of other elements to produce new products with highly unusual and useful properties that we cannot even conceive of today.
  • New types of biomolecular chemicals will be produced, enabling people and animals to live longer and healthier lives. These will tend to be used in countries and cultures that manage or curtail unlimited reproduction to stabilize their populations and provide a higher quality of life.
  • Human population will eventually stabilize at 50 billion people due to increased food production from genetically modified products and more efficient use of herbicides and pesticides.
  • Synthetic proteins and foods will take the place of most animals currently raised for food (e.g., chickens, fish, cattle and sheep).
  • The water, soil and air of the world will be cleaner and contain lower concentrations of chemical pollutants. Isolated exclusions of this prediction will include some groundwaters and sediments that are not technically or cost-effectively able to be cleaned up to standards of the 21st century.
  • Third-world countries will no longer allow industrially advanced countries to produce within their borders toxic chemicals that are banned elsewhere. The quality of human life common to industrialized countries in the 20th century will gradually become prevalent in all countries of the world in the next 100 years. This may well be identified as one of the most important future impacts of chemicals.

We'll see how accurate these limited predictions of the influence of chemicals will be. I won't be around to assess them, but chances are that, if you are less than 25 years old and living in an industrialized country, you will be alive to assess their accuracy. If I've guessed over half of them correctly, then drink a toast to me. That is, if alcohol in moderation is still believed to be a healthy habit.

Pollution knows no boundaries

By Robert E. Hall, QEP
Air & Waste Management Association

Considering the rapid changes the global community has been experiencing, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the next five years, much less the next 100 years. If one were asked in 1900 to predict environmental problems in 2000, the concern probably would have been with the number of horses and how to handle all of the manure, because no one had dreamed of the coming use of automobiles and airplanes. However, I do think it is instructive to look at history to predict the future. Based on what I've observed, the growing worldwide population will result in more vehicles, more power-generating plants, more industrial processes, and more worldwide industrialization. This will likely lead to more pollution, which will require mitigation by improved technology. Unless we develop cleaner sources, we will have dirtier air, water and land.

Technological competition
To a large degree, pollution control technology development is not only impacted by politics, but also by competition. I think the countries that address pollution reduction needs in a timely manner tend to be the most innovative in developing new technologies. Therefore, if the United States doesn't move forward in developing environmental controls and protection as rapidly as other industrialized nations, we will find ourselves in the position of having to purchase technology from other countries. However, it is likely that the United States will continue to be a leader in the environmental area, and will be in a position to work with other countries to sell them our technologies. However, regardless of new technology, unless there is a worldwide effort to control pollution, we will all suffer, since pollution knows no boundaries. Developing countries will need the most help, and if we are wise, we will position ourselves to provide that help and profit from it in more ways than just financially.

In 50 to 100 years, polluted water will likely be a serious problem. Dirty air will also be a problem if we don't aggressively develop new, cleaner technologies utilizing solar energy, fuel cells, hybrid technologies and nuclear energy. However, I think our manufacturing processes will be much cleaner, with much less waste generated.

Uniting factions
If we all work together, instead of continuing to fight in factions, we can accomplish much more. Our future environment will depend on how successful we are in accomplishing more thorough cooperation at all levels. Different countries can benefit from working on cooperative projects to develop and demonstrate new, improved technologies. Professional societies and environmental groups also need to work with each other, and with government agencies. If we don't proceed in this manner, the lives of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will be negatively impacted by the mess we leave behind. There is an old Kenyan proverb to which we need to pay attention: The Earth does not belong to you. It has been loaned to you by your children.

Comprehensive watershed management key to future

By Rhonda Harris
Water Environment Federation

Water quality professionals welcome the coming of a new millennium with a sense of excitement. I believe that the knowledge, experience and advances in technology that have been gained during the second half of the 20th century have prepared us to enhance the quality of life for people around the world by providing the most precious natural resource, clean water.

Globally, the greatest challenge facing clean water in the future is the lack of proper sanitation for billions of people around the world. Water scarcity on the planet is also a major concern, as well as a lack of international cooperation to solve water problems.

In the United States, the Clean Water Act has enabled much to be achieved - including the removal of millions of pounds of municipal and industrial discharges from the nation's water bodies. But it is estimated that about 40 percent of the nation's water bodies are still not where they need to be. The remaining problems derive from nonpoint source pollution such as run-off from agricultural lands, run-off from urban and suburban communities, combined sewer and sanitary sewer overflows, and polluted stormwater. The future for clean water in the United States relies on how we will mitigate these non-traditional sources of pollution.

Strategies for cleanup
Success in cleaning up these waters lies in comprehensive watershed management. Rather than looking at isolated discharge sources, the watershed approach accounts for all stressors. It recognizes that rivers, streams and runoff from the land do not respect local jurisdictions and borders. Rather, bodies of water receive pollutants from all sources within the drainage basin tributary to the body of water. The watershed approach considers the relationships between pollution sources and the relative impacts they have on water quality. This leads us to consider innovative techniques such as effluent trading, and best management practices in the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on farmlands. To successfully meet future challenges, we need to plan, design and construct facilities that come together in the watershed plan. In addition to watershed management, I believe priority-setting, sound science, research, and funding are the cornerstones on which the future of clean water will rest.

Future regulatory framework
Reauthorization of the Clean Water Act does not appear to be a Congressional priority in the near future. However, in late 1997 the administration directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies to prepare a plan that would "revitalize the nation's commitment to its valuable water resources." The joint agency plan, which was released on Feb. 19, 1998, is called the Clean Water Action Plan (CWAP). The CWAP, which is a regulatory blueprint for moving forward in water quality programs, is based on the watershed approach. EPA believes that the road map for water quality management going forward is the CWAP, so water quality professionals need to become familiar with that plan. The CWAP states four major objectives: improve information and citizen's right to know, address polluted run-off, enhance natural resources stewardship and protect public health. Details on the CWAP can be found online at www.cleanwater.gov.

Clean water funding
The Cost of Clean, a study produced jointly by the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA) clearly shows that funding is a major challenge for the future of clean water. Most of the municipal wastewater plants designed and constructed during the 1970s and early '80s had major components with design lives typically within the 20 to 30 year range. Many of those components are at or near the time that replacement will be required or systems will fail resulting in pollutant discharges. Adding to the cost of those replacements are the costs associated for programs to be pursued under the CWAP.

As the WEF/AMSA study states, the burden to maintain and improve infrastructure has fallen more and more on the local municipalities. WEF estimates the actual cost of clean water at $330 billion over the next 20 years. The EPA's ongoing gap analysis appears to estimate about the same level of need. A dialogue must occur among America's clean water partners to ensure that we meet the water quality challenges of the future.

Technological revolution
The future will see an increasing use of electronic technology in all aspects of the water quality business. This technology has revolutionized communication and will continue to provide ever-increasing channels for training professionals and providing critical information to them. It will continue to have a profound impact on the way we design, operate and manage water pollution control facilities. WEF, for example, now provides full and certifiable operator training by interactive electronic means.

More and more, clean water will become a limited resource around the world. This is particularly true in certain arid regions and in parts of the globe where wastewater treatment is virtually non-existent. This will drive the use of recycling and reclamation to an ever-increasing degree. I believe water quality will become an even more global issue. We are at vastly different points in the evolution of clean water programs at different places in the world, and the need to share information and provide innovative means to fund programs, such as private/public partnerships, is paramount.

Endless possibilities for the future

By Stephen F. Gorden
American Water Works Association

For those of us in the realm of environmental work, the possibilities for the future are endlessly fascinating. Environmental trends for the future are not limited to just water and wastewater, but also include air, land, waste and soil. We can look forward to ingenious ways of reducing pollutant loads, understanding atmospheric deposition, ozone action programs, and redevelopment and reuse of brownfields. Reforestation and the greening of America will take place, along with integrated resource planning and more even regulations.

Quantity and quality
Specifically, in the water industry, professionals will begin to examine issues such as sufficient water quantity, water quality aesthetic treatment (clarity, taste and odor) vs. pharmaceutical grate treatment (removal of the smallest microbe), the potential for water wars, biosolids reuse, and the recycling and reuse of wastewater. We all understand that the increase in our earth's population requires this examination, as there is only so much raw product available for drinking water, and few places to dispose of the traditional wastewater effluent. Water volume is becoming an ever-increasing priority issue, and will result in a demand for an increase in the re-circulation frequency of water.

Research claims that the use of a membrane filter on Caribbean Ocean water can produce drinking water at a reasonable price. If this yet-unproven claim becomes reality, world politics will shift. Countries bordering the oceans will have an unlimited water supply. This means the deserts may bloom, the weather will become less predictable and food will be plentiful. This additional "greening" will also impact the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, ground temperatures and water levels.

What we don't know
What we cannot predict is how the environment in which we exist now will change over the next 100 years. For example, we presently generate power and waste energy trying to maintain an electric grid's power potential. There is no present way to store that energy. If we could create a fuel from the available unused power, fuel cells could be stored in every home. Perhaps we will one day develop heating/cooling technology that performs for an organism, rather than for a space's requirements. There could be experimental communities where the living quarters are all underground, leaving the surface space for gardening, recreation, animal habitat and forest.

If you were to start new, would you create the same scheme of using our environmental resource as we have today? Some would say yes, many no. Regardless, our motivations are changing As the human population grows, space and environmental resources are approaching limited quanities. Where will they come from next? There is a universe, which, if tapped, may again transform our drive for conservation into that of the original pioneers, with "limitless" resources, and the accompanying effect on our beliefs.

One hundred years from now, with scientific knowledge doubling every six to seven years, our boundaries as we know and understand them today will be shattered. Energy will be boundless, opportunities to live elsewhere will exist and disease will have been eliminated from the species. The planet will be clean, its water, air and land pure. The struggle then will be to determine the next challenge.

Issues that will shape U.S. policy in the new millennium

By Gregg A. Cooke
U.S. EPA, Region 6

For the last three decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has striven to fulfill its unique mandate: to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment - air, water and land - upon which all life depends. Our efforts have been extraordinarily successful. Our focus, however, must now expand to address the impacts of our lifestyles on the environment.

It seems that for every challenge met, more complex problems arise. Today, more citizens are realizing that preserving the environment is not about simply regulating big industries or protecting beautiful, but far away, places. It is about enhancing our communities - the neighborhoods where we live and raise our families. We want to ensure that our children can live out meaningful lives safely. The new challenges we face don't have easy answers. They call for new solutions requiring commitment and work from all parts of our society.

For example, our cities have long been plagued by abandoned industrial sites. Sometimes the threat of contamination is enough to keep these sites undeveloped, underused and off the tax rolls. EPA's brownfields program brings together partners from federal and state agencies, communities, landowners and developers to promote cleanup and reuse of these unproductive sites. The program is working in more than 300 communities around the country. It has leveraged more than $1 billion in public and private funds, created thousands of new jobs, returned idle land to productive and profitable use, and relieved development pressure on our suburban and rural areas.

We are recognizing that we must work differently to ensure an environment that is both sustainable and livable. We will need more new tools like the brownfields program to help us ensure a healthy environment for our children. For example, the administration has proposed the Better America Bonds program to ensure that communities will have the financial means to preserve open space, create parks or clean up brownfields. These include the resources to improve water quality by purchasing and preserving wetlands or creating forest buffers to protect streams. Communities can do all these things together. The program is very flexible and leaves it up to each community to decide what's best for them.

We are also working to improve our nation's transportation system. Studies show that Americans can lose two working weeks a year - or more - stuck in traffic, at a cost of more than $1,000 per driver. When you add the cost of the more than 6 billion gallons of fuel wasted in traffic jams, congested roads cost our economy almost $74 billion each year. We must find better ways to live, work and participate in our communities - ways that don't increase pollution, waste and frustration.

The issues that will shape environmental policy in the next millennium are complex. Environmental policy must include all of us - industries, governments, communities and individuals. How we live our lives is becoming increasingly intertwined with the environment. The challenge of the next millennium for the EPA will be to set environmental policy that addresses the environmental impacts of the daily choices we all make.

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This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.