Complex Adaptive Systems and Unconventional Progress for the National Air Quality Management System

By Emison, Gerald Andrews | Public Administration Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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Complex Adaptive Systems and Unconventional Progress for the National Air Quality Management System

Emison, Gerald Andrews, Public Administration Quarterly


Environmental statutes are among the most complicated national legislation. These laws seek to integrate scientific ambiguity, political competition, management performance and intergovernmental relations. As a consequence they are among the most contentious. No major environmental legislation has been enacted at the national level in over fifteen years. In the face of growing environmental problems, this may be signaling an intellectual and political dead end.

Current environmental legislation is based on the assumptions of comprehensive rationality and centralized federalism. With progress in environmental management stalled, new paradigms are needed to advance environmental protection in the United States. This paper suggests that a new intellectual framework, complex adaptive systems theory, can reconfigure national environmental legislation to become more effective. The paper examines the current conditions of the Clean Air Act and suggests an alternative approach to comprehensive rationality for effectively protecting the environment of the United States. The paper discusses the barriers to pursuing this novel approach and suggests that it is time to seek unconventional ways to sustain the United States' environmental health.


The Clean Air Act is the flagship statute with which the U.S. has attacked air pollution. This was the first comprehensive environmental statute enacted in the modern environmental era (Rodgers, 1994). Its reach into the national economy is considerable. It regulates most sources of air pollution. It covers activities as sophisticated as automobile manufacturing and as simple as neighborhood dry cleaners. Estimates are that the nation spent $500 billion controlling air pollution in the period from 1970 to 1990 (EPA, 1997).

While these costs are considerable, so are the health and welfare effects that they purchase. EPA has estimated that from 1970 to 1990 about $22.2 trillion in benefits flowed to the nation as a result of the environmental regulation of air pollution (EPA, 1997).

The method for achieving these benefits and costs is important. The environmental regulatory system fostered by the Act, termed the command and control system, is complex both in government-business relations as well as in intergovernmental relations (Bryner, 1995). At its core is the expectation that government can establish both ambient and emission standards and protect the public health by requiring the most current pollution control technology. These standards are implemented through a federal-state system that identifies situations where nonperformance occurs and uses civil or judicial enforcement to compel violators to alter behavior to conform to the standards.

Today's use of this command and control system has encountered a host of new conditions for which the system was not designed. Many of the nation's current air pollution problems come from small sources such as dry cleaners, paint shops, construction sites and the ultimate small source, automobiles, rather than large industrial sources. (U. S. EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, 2005). Further, since these sources are so small, they are exquisitely sensitive to costs such as those imposed by command and control environmental regulation. These sources are not effectively influenced by the command and control system.

There are new remedies for these small sources of pollution. With the focus shifting from large point sources to many dispersed sources, we need to employ the best management/operation practices to prevent pollution, rather than treating it with the command and control system as we have previously (Gunningham & Grabosky, 1998). We should turn to different tools if we are to make progress.

The resource landscape for environmental protection is also changing. The federal government's increased demands and unfunded mandates and the sharp limitations on funds available at the federal level for environmental activities characterized the 1990s and 2000s (Rosenbaum, 2005).

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Complex Adaptive Systems and Unconventional Progress for the National Air Quality Management System


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