Environmental Policy: The Next Generation

By Chertow, Marian R.; Esty, Daniel C. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Environmental Policy: The Next Generation


Chertow, Marian R., Esty, Daniel C., Issues in Science and Technology


Today environmental problems are subtler and less visible; new strategies, institutions, and tools are needed.

A generation ago the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so contaminated that it caught fire, air pollution in some cities was thick enough to taste, and environmental laws focused on the obvious enemy: belching smokestacks and orange rivers that fouled the landscape. Since the time of Earth Day in 1970, we have cleaned up thousands of the "big dirties" through the use of pioneering federal legislation designed to take direct action against these threats to air, water, and land. Now, a generation later, we must confront environmental problems that are subtler, less visible, and more difficult to address: fertilizer runoff from thousands of farms and millions of yards; emissions from gas stations, bakeries, and dry cleaners; and smog produced by tens of millions of motor vehicles. Like nature itself, the size and shape of environmental problems constantly evolve; so too must the strategies, approaches, institutions, and tools chosen to address them.

At first blush, many people might conclude from the visible improvements to the environment that we have done our work well and that, except for maintenance, the federal government should move on to other pressing priorities. Others would prefer to see a rollback of environmental legislation, as was proposed in the 104th Congress, in the belief that we have simply gone too far. Even those who support environmental investments might feel that the enormous problems of maintaining clean water and air in the world's developing megacities or habitat destruction in Asia or South America are more important than reforming environmental protection in the United States.

These assessments overlook some important facts. First, many once "quiet" issues are emerging as population densities increase. Second, our understanding of ecological and public health threats continues to change. Substances that were beneficial in direct application, such as chlorofluorocarbons, turn out to be harmful long after they have served their local function. Third, the environmental advances of recent years are not evenly distributed among urban and suburban areas, rich and poor neighborhoods, and geographical regions. Fourth, we are just beginning to appreciate how deeply the environment is intertwined with many other issues such as human health, energy and food production, and international trade. Thus, rather than retrench, we must renew our commitment to environmental protection.

Whereas individual reforms are slow and hard-won, collective change can occur rapidly and has made the world a dramatically different place than it was in 1970. Globalization, the dominance of market economies, and the revolution in information technology all have greatly altered the setting of environmental policy and require that we pursue it differently than we have before. We must recognize the competing desires that citizens everywhere have for a cleaner environment and other things: mobility, economic growth, jobs, competitive industries, and material comforts. Environmental policy cannot be made in isolation from other issues. Policies that are in tune with the people whose lives they are meant to serve increase the prospects for winning the public and political support necessary to effect change. We need a systems approach built on rigorous analysis, an interdisciplinary focus, and an understanding that context matters.

Environmental law and good intentions

The first generation of environmental policy was built on a complex system of environmental law that separates environmental problems by media (such as air and water) and by class (such as pesticides or hazardous materials). At the heart of key legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act is a system of setting standards established by federal administrative agencies to regulate emissions to air, water, and land. …

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