Solving the Problems We Face: The United States Environmental Protection Agency, Sustainability, and the Challenges of the Twenty-First Century

By Hecht, Alan D.; Fiksel, Joseph | Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Solving the Problems We Face: The United States Environmental Protection Agency, Sustainability, and the Challenges of the Twenty-First Century


Hecht, Alan D., Fiksel, Joseph, Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy


Introduction

The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be. ?Paul Valery (1948)

During the 1970s, environmental crises were highly visible and easy for the public to understand. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, drawing national attention to the environment. Popular articles decried the "poisoned fish and troubled waters" affecting dozens of America's waterways (Boyle, 1970). Air pollution led to 406 deaths in four days during a 1963 weather inversion in New York City.

The creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) in 1970 was a response to the evident problems of industrial emissions and public health, and subsequent Congressional legislation aimed at reducing pollution. In the more than 40 years since, new and more complex problems have emerged as a result of population growth, urban development, and the globalization of industry. Today, we face a variety of newly apparent challenges, including climate change; declining biodiversity; threats to vital natural resources including water bodies, soils, forests, wetlands, and coral reefs; and increased health risks to minority urban communities, contributing to a pattern of "environmental injustice" (Clark et al. 2014).

How can society best address these problems? It is here that the concept of sustainability is becoming a driving force in business, government, and civil society.

Sustainability, as we understand it, is both a goal, aiming to enhance economic growth while protecting health and the environment, and a process, involving the application of a number of scientific decision-support tools, flexibility in regulatory decision-making and management, and collaboration and partnerships among all stakeholders. This Community Essay highlights the history of USEPA methods and how it is now inching toward a more sustainable, systems-oriented approach. While we focus largely on the history of USEPA, the lessons learned and the challenges ahead apply to all federal agencies and to federal-state and business-government collaboration.

Over the past four decades, USEPA has evolved to address environmental problems in a number of ways. The following discussion describes a progression of five major regulatory and management approaches that transpired over this period of time (Figure 1):

[Image omitted: see PDF]

Figure 1 EPA's evolution through the decades.

1. The starting point was end-of-pipe regulations that limited or banned pollutants.

2. Regulations were enhanced by scientific assessment and management of risks to human health.

3. New solutions focused on reducing and/or eliminating the sources of pollution and promoting environmentally conscious design.

4. Environmental stewardship and innovative problem-solving became critical elements in overall environmental management.

5. Systems thinking is now helping decision makers achieve an integrated understanding of the consequences of their actions in terms of resilience and sustainability.

This historic review of domestic and international activities shows that, while significant progress has been made toward more sustainable management practices, the process has been slow and often reactive, rather than proactive. Ever since USEPA was created, there have been ongoing debates about its role and the economic impact of its regulation, as well as internal conflicts between the media-centric legal and management approaches to problem-solving (so-called "silos"). Understanding this context is critical for both academics and the general public to help in shaping future actions.

Emerging global trends demand a more timely and efficient approach to environmental management, because new crises are on the horizon. This is especially true of climate change, where despite a 40-year research effort that has affirmed the reality of global warming and its impact on society, the volume of greenhouse-gas emissions to the atmosphere has not been abated. …

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