|Learn how to protect the quality of the natural and human environment to promote well-being.
What do we mean by environmental quality?
Why protect environmental quality?
When should you act to protect environmental quality?
Who should be involved in protecting environmental quality?
How do you protect environmental quality?
The Hallsville landfill was getting too big – everyone knew that. Sooner or later, something would have to be done, but nobody wanted to be the one to bring up the issue. Closing and capping the landfill would mean an increase in taxes, to cover both the capping cost and the added annual expense of trucking Hallsville’s garbage elsewhere.
But now the Town Engineer had found that seepage from the dump was threatening the Hallsville Wildlife Refuge, a tract of more than 700 acres on the edge of town. In addition to being an important stop for migratory waterfowl in the spring and fall, the Refuge was home to many species of mammals, songbirds, and fish. It was an important destination for birders, and a source of pleasure and recreation to local folks and tourists alike. More to the point, the pure water from swamps and streams in the Refuge fed the town wells. No one wanted to see it fouled by toxic drainage from the dump.
The Mayor and Town Council held a series of public meetings to test public opinion and hear ideas about what should be done. It turned out that the Refuge was important to a majority of the town. The meetings were packed, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about strategies for correcting the situation.
After sifting through all the ideas, the Mayor announced a three-pronged strategy: the dump would be capped, and trash would be shipped to another facility; the town would immediately start a recycling project to reduce the amount of trash that had to be shipped, and to try to make back some of the shipping costs; and every household in town that wanted one could buy a composter for $10.00. The town’s goals were to cut the amount of garbage by 50%, and to get back – from payments for recycled material – 50% of the costs of shipping out what still had to be disposed of.
Soon, blue plastic recycling baskets became a familiar sight at curbside on trash days. Hallsville’s lawns, vegetable gardens, and flowerbeds flourished with the addition of the compost that nearly 60% of households were making – from food waste that they would previously have thrown away – in the black plastic bins in their backyards. Most important to many people, the water in the Wildlife Refuge remained clean, and the area continued to attract migratory wildfowl and migratory station wagons full of enthusiastic people with binoculars and family-size bottles of insect repellent.
The citizens of Hallsville made a decision to protect the environmental quality of the community. Their decision was a relatively simple one, since they had some control over the source of the problem. Often, protecting environmental quality is much more complex. This section explores some of that complexity, and suggests some ways to make sure that the environment of your community – the built environment as well as the natural – is maintained for the health and enjoyment of generations to come.
What do we mean by environmental quality?
When we think of “environment,” the picture that often arises is one of woods, hills, seashores, meadows, and streams, with few, if any people around. That’s certainly one aspect of what we mean by environment – the wild places that are left to the workings of nature, and that we enter only as visitors. But our environment also encompasses city streets, farms, factories, parks, mines, office buildings, and houses, among other things.
When we talk about environmental quality, then, we’re talking about the quality of our total environment, not just the natural environment. Environmental quality is a measure of the health of that environment itself (including the plants and animals it supports), and of the effects it has on the health, comfort, and psychological state of the people that inhabit it.
In the broadest terms, our environment consists of the air, water, and land that make up the planet and the plants and animals that live on or in them. In addition, we have to consider the built environment – the environment we create for ourselves – and how it affects our health and comfort and the health of the natural environment; the natural resources we depend upon to sustain that built environment; the recreational possibilities that the natural environment provides; and aesthetics – the role that natural beauty plays in our relationship with the natural environment.
All of these come into consideration when we examine protecting environmental quality.
Why protect environmental quality?
The reasons for protecting environmental quality span a broad range.
- To preserve the health of the community and its members. Clean air, water, and soil, adequate open space, abundant resources – all of these, as well as other environmental factors, ensure the health of individuals and contribute to building a healthy community.
- To preserve community resources. Making sure that the community’s water supply, for example, and the streams, swamps, and other bodies of water that feed it, are kept clean is not just a matter of environmental quality, but one of necessity.
- To create a more pleasant and better quality of life. The physical attractiveness of the community and its recreational and relaxation opportunities, make life more pleasant for community residents. A pleasant environment reduces stress and encourages interaction, leading ultimately to a better quality of community life.
- To enhance the aesthetic character of the community. Living amidst natural and man-made beauty contributes to health and the quality of life, and also stimulates pride in and a sense of ownership of the community. It encourages people to maintain the community both physically and socially, and gives them hope.
- To attract new, environmentally-friendly business and sustain economic health. A community that cares for its environment is an attractive place to live and work, especially for “green” businesses (those that care about, or whose business itself is concerned with, environmental preservation).
- To attract visitors and new residents. Visitors, like those birders who come to the Hallsville Wildlife Refuge, often seek out places where environmental quality is high for their scenic and recreational value. People seeking new homes, whether for retirement or for other reasons, look for pleasant and attractive communities.
- To preserve community history. Protecting historic buildings or districts, and the sites of old settlements or battlefields, or preserving untouched the spot from which the original settlers first viewed the community, can be important to community pride and to the maintenance of social memory.
- To protect the community from environmental disaster. The large-scale destruction of the coastal marshes in Louisiana in the second half of the 20th Century contributed greatly to the 2005 destruction of much of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Clear-cutting timber on hillsides can lead to mudslides that carry away or bury communities and alter the landscape.
- To prevent people from taking actions they’ll later regret. If you allow building in a floodplain or on an eroded slope, sooner or later you’ll be sorry.
In the 1950’s, a subdivision in a Massachusetts town was built in the floodplain (the area into which a river expands in heavy rains) of a local river, despite the warnings of engineers. Not long after, there was, in fact, a flood. Not a dangerous flood – there were no deaths or serious injuries – but virtually all of the houses in the subdivision were ruined by water damage, and none had flood insurance. As a result, the state soon after passed laws that prohibited building in a floodplain.
- To protect endangered species. Protecting environmental quality can also protect habitat and help preserve endangered or threatened animals and plants.
- To maintain ecosystems. Disrupting ecosystems – the interrelated stable systems of landscape, plants, animals, resources, and climate that interact with and sustain the character of the environment in a particular place – generally leads to unforeseen (usually negative) consequences, such as global warming, erosion, and the disappearance of species.
Frogs are dying out in various parts of the world, for reasons that aren’t yet clear. Scientists suspect, however, that global warming – caused, as far as we know, by human activity – creates conditions that are perfect for the growth of a fungus that infects frogs and kills them quickly. More than 100 frog species have disappeared worldwide since the 1980’s, and if the trend continues, there will be few, if any, species of frogs left by the end of the 21st Century. Each frog population that dies out affects numerous other animals – those that they eat, those that eat them, and all the other plants and animals that are affected by the frogs’ predators or prey.
- To be good stewards of the planet. Earth is, at least for the foreseeable future, the only home we have, and it is both our duty and in our self-interest to take as good care of its natural environment as possible. If our own species is to survive, we have to pass the planet on to our descendants in at least as good a condition as we found it.
When should you protect environmental quality?
As with most topics in the Tool Box, you should pay attention to environmental quality all the time, but there are occasions when it’s particularly appropriate or favorable to work toward protecting it.
- When it’s specifically threatened. When the last patch of green space in town is proposed for development, when an important wetland is likely to be polluted by an industrial plant – these are times to point out the consequences of ignoring environmental concerns.
- When there’s a community development initiative. Rather than having to react to a danger to environmental quality, this is a time to get in on the ground floor and build environmental protection into the development plan.
- When there’s a new commercial, industrial, or housing development beginning. A developer can be convinced – through incentives and/or regulations – to incorporate environmentally-friendly principles into site selection and preparation, building design and materials, and other aspects of the development.
- When there’s an environmental crisis. When aquifers start to run dry, when global warming actually begins to show its effects, when local air quality becomes dangerous, or when torrential rains have caused the sewers to back up into the water supply, people tend to be willing to look at environmental quality issues.
It took the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, when the topsoil in much of the American Midwest blew away, to convince farmers not to plow in straight lines, and to plant cypress and other dense trees at the edges of fields to break the wind.
- When there’s a publication or media event that calls attention to the environment. The publication of Rachel Carson’s book The Silent Spring in 1962 called attention to the dangers of pouring chemicals into the environment, and essentially started the modern environmental movement in the U.S.
- When money is available. When local, state, or federal agencies or private foundations offer funding to protect land, start environmental initiatives, or do environmental research, you may be able to realize a long-held intention or to begin a new project related to environmental quality.
A visit by the head of the state environmental agency to a rural Massachusetts town resulted in a partnership between the state and a regional land trust to purchase conservation easements from landowners in the area. The state provided the money to buy development rights from landowners (meaning their land could never be developed beyond its current condition), while the land trust negotiated the deals and conducted land surveys and other necessary procedures. Thousands of acres were protected as a result of this funding.
Who should protect environmental quality?
Perhaps a better heading here would be “Who can you persuade to get involved in protecting environmental quality?” The ideal answer is, of course, “everyone,” but it’s often not that simple. It can take a great deal of convincing when there are conflicting interests – for instance, between environmental quality and financial profit or simply making a living. With the right tools – common sense, respect for the other’s position, incentives, regulations, sanctions, enforcement, etc. – you can persuade most people and groups to cooperate in maintaining the environment, at least to a certain extent.
- Local, state, and federal officials. There are state and federal agencies in most countries that are responsible for the protection of environmental quality. Their effectiveness depends upon their level of funding and upon the level of political support they receive from the government in power. Since most developed, and many developing, countries are quite concerned about the environment, these agencies and officials may be important allies.
- Local and national and international environmental organizations. Local organizations usually understand the local situation, and know what the real issues are and what tactics are likely to be effective. Larger organizations, such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, or the World Wildlife Fund generally have legal departments, access to funds, and the resources to take on long battles for environmental quality.
- Community activists. Although it may be only one of many areas these folks are interested in, they can be strong guardians of environmental quality when the issue arises.
- Those directly affected by environmental quality. This category can include people with very different approaches to the environment.
- Those whose living depends on it. Although loggers and commercial fishermen, for example, are sometimes seen by activists as enemies of the natural environment, they have as much stake in environmental quality as anyone. If they understand clearly why protecting the environment protects their livelihood – keeping fish stocks healthy, for instance – they can become as concerned about environmental quality as the most avid environmentalist.
- Those whose business is environmental quality or the study of the environment. Wildlife biologists, botanists, and other life scientists, foresters, hydrologists (water experts), public health professionals, etc. usually care deeply about environmental quality, and are often in a position to provide valuable information about it.
- People who use the natural environment for recreation and spiritual support. Hunters and fishermen, birders, hikers, skiers, and others who enjoy the outdoors generally have a strong desire to preserve wilderness and to protect the quality of the natural environment.
- Architects and environmentally conscious developers. hese folks are concerned with both the built and natural environment, and are the leaders in encouraging green building and using open space well.
- Businesses and corporations. Some businesses and corporations are environmentally conscious, and try to support environmental quality and to pay attention to it in their own operations. Others are induced by incentives or forced by regulation to pay attention to it. Whatever the reason, if you can make common cause with the business community, or at least parts of it, they can be strong and useful allies.
- Anyone who is conscious of the effects of environmental quality – or the lack of it – on their lives. With the proper education, this includes virtually everyone. Not everyone suffers from environmentally-related conditions, but everyone has to drink water, breathe air, and eat food that is raised in particular conditions. The cleaner and purer the air, water, soil, and built environment are, the more attention is paid to sustaining resources over time, the better off people dependent on them are.
How do you protect environmental quality?
Protecting environmental quality can mean:
- Acting before the fact, in order to seize a potential environmental benefit, or to prevent a real or possible threat to environmental quality (e.g., recruiting a “green” developer to develop a blighted urban site, gaining conservation easements on many acres of wild land, preventing a polluting industrial plant from being built).
- Acting in an ongoing situation, to ensure that an environmental benefit continues, or to stop something that is actually or potentially harmful to environmental quality (working to continue current funding for environmental preservation and research, for instance, or forcing a factory to stop illegal dumping of industrial waste).
- Acting after the fact, to repair environmental damage, and restore environmental quality (making General Electric clean up PCB’s that it dumped into the Hudson River, for example).
The reason for listing these is that they’re in priority order: i.e., it’s a lot more effective to act before the fact than during or after, if you have the opportunity. For this reason, it’s important to be constantly aware of environmental issues, to anticipate and plan for both possible threats and possible benefits, and to take advantage of every opportunity to act before it’s absolutely necessary.
Protecting environmental quality takes a number of steps
Elements of the environment to consider
Air, water, land, plants, animals, resources, the built environment, recreation, aesthetics – these are the elements we mentioned at the beginning of the section. We’ll examine them in more detail here.
There are several environmental issues relating to air quality.
- Air pollution and smog. Air pollution has declined significantly in the U.S. since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, but there are still serious problems worldwide, having to do with population growth, the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) to fuel cars and generate electricity, and numerous other societal factors.
- The ozone layer. Ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the Earth from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, the part of sunlight that causes sunburn and skin cancer. In recent years, our use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) has reduced the ozone layer in the atmosphere, which may injure people in both the short and the long term.
- Haze. In the U.S. and elsewhere, many national parks and wilderness areas far from population centers are plagued by haze caused by particles from coal-burning power plants. Haze from power plants in the Four Corners area – where the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah come together – sometimes make it difficult to see across the Grand Canyon, for instance.
- Acid rain. Sulfur emissions from power plants and factories in the U.S. Midwest – whose chimneys often rise more than 300 feet to avoid polluting the surrounding area – are carried hundreds of miles eastward on the prevailing winds, and combine with rain to fall as sulfuric acid in New England. In Europe, many lakes in Sweden and Norway have been emptied of fish by acid rain from plants in Germany.
Pollution blown high in the air by chimneys, steam venting, or natural forces can travel thousands of miles on upper-air currents at speeds of over 200 miles an hour. It can pollute areas that would otherwise be clean. A dust cloud from a storm in northern China’s Takla-Makan Desert in April of 2002, for example, had, by the beginning of May, been blown across the Pacific, crossed North America and the Atlantic, and settled in the French Alps, a journey of about 18,000 miles. Air pollution is a global problem.
- Global Warming. The burning of fossil fuels has led, over the past century, to an increase of carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere. The carbon dioxide acts like the glass in a greenhouse, keeping heat absorbed from sunlight from escaping, and creating a warming trend (often called the “greenhouse effect”). This climate change is already apparent in many ways, and its effects will grow as the century wears on.
Water quality and supply are two of several water-related problems that are only apt to get worse as the 21st Century progresses.
- Water pollution. The U.S. Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 mandated that dumping of industrial waste into water be regulated and ultimately stopped, and that all communities install wastewater treatment plants. The Act resulted in a dramatic turnaround in U.S. water quality, but that progress has been halted by recent court decisions and actions by government. Water pollution remains a serious problem, and could get worse.
The main sources of water pollution in the U.S. have been industrial waste – both garbage and the “leftovers” of industrial processes were routinely dumped into rivers for 150 years – human waste – before sewage treatment plants, untreated sewage was simply piped into the nearby river, lake, or ocean – and agriculture – runoff from fertilizers and animal waste are much larger contributors to pollution than most people realize. Other factors that contribute to water pollution are the paving over of large parts of the country, causing more runoff in storms and floods, and the destruction of wetlands and coastal marshes, which cleanse water of pollutants before it gets to the ocean. Yet another is the simple growth of population (human population has more than doubled in the past 50 years, from 2.5 billion to about 6.5 billion), adding to the volume of both industrial and human waste, as well as to airborne pollution, which, as illustrated by the example of acid rain, can pollute water as well.
Fertilizer runoff causes a peculiar kind of pollution called eutrophication (from a Greek root meaning “well nourished”). Rather than killing the life in the water, fertilizer runoff – and some other substances as well – causes certain kinds of algae to flourish so greatly that they use up enough of the oxygen in the water to suffocate fish and shellfish.
- Water supply. In many parts of the world, both developed and undeveloped, water is a far more precious liquid than oil, or soon will be. Much of the world’s population lives in areas where water is in short supply, and recent droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of China, and the western U.S., among other places, have made that problem worse. Water supply is crucial not only for drinking and cleaning, but for irrigation of crops and for many industrial processes.
A water supply issue that surfaces often is the conflict between increasing the water supply and preserving scenic or other values. Several huge reservoirs in the western U.S. – Hetch Hetchy in California’s Sierra Nevada, Lake Powell in Arizona and Utah, Lake Mead in Nevada, among others – were created by damming and drowning spectacular landscapes. The damming of Glen Canyon to give birth to Lake Powell was so controversial that it spurred the founding of the modern environmental movement.
At the same time, many dry-climate cities and farms are in danger of running out of water. The aquifer (underground water source) that feeds Phoenix, Arizona, for instance, is emptying faster than it refills. Los Angeles pipes water hundreds of miles from northern California, and has fought for years with farm interests in the state’s Central Valley and elsewhere over water rights. Resolving supply issues is not easy, and these issues are likely to get worse worldwide as time goes on.
- Oceans. The oceans are prey to pollution of various kinds, from land, air, rivers, and ships at sea (ships dump garbage and other waste, tankers spill oil, etc.), but also pose other environmental quality concerns. One is the concentration of toxic (poisonous) pollutants in the fish that we eat, such as tuna and swordfish. Another is overfishing – many species of fish that were plentiful only recently are at dangerously low levels because too many have been taken. Still another concern is the effect of global warming on the ocean itself. Many scientists think that the Gulf Stream, the warm ocean current that keeps northern Europe temperate, and other major currents could be disrupted, further changing the climate, perhaps in unexpected directions.
Since the land is the part of the earth that humans live on, it bears some of the most serious environmental quality concerns.
- Pollution. While we often pay more attention to pollution of air and water, earth, too, can be fouled by intentional and unintentional dumping, leakage, and spills of waste and chemicals, often affecting water as well. Many of these dangerous substances persist as poisons for very long periods of time, putting anyone living in the area at risk.
- Land destruction. In some parts of the world, clear-cutting of forests results in not only the loss of the trees as a resource, but erosion of the bare soil, which can slip in heavy rains and carry away or bury whole towns, dam or divert streams, and cause wholesale environmental and human disaster. Often equally damaging are such practices as strip-mining – in which all the topsoil is stripped off an ore vein, leaving a huge pit – and mountain top removal (MTR), where a whole mountain is dismantled to get at the coal or minerals inside it. In the U.S., mining companies are required to restore the land when they’re finished, but seldom obey.
Like the dams in the American west that drowned scenic valleys, this is another example of the conflict between the need for resources – or at least the need for the profits those resources will bring – and environmental quality. There are other ways to mine than MTR and open-pit and strip-mining, but these methods extract the most ore or coal the fastest, and therefore generate the greatest profits. Using massive machines, they feed our growing need for energy and the materials used to sustain an industrial and technological society.
- Agriculture. Agriculture can have huge environmental consequences, far beyond the land-clearing that it requires. In dry areas of the world, herds of sheep and goats can overgraze to the point where they turn marginal grassland into desert. Slash and burn agriculture can destroy fragile rain forest and deplete the soil. In more developed countries, chemical fertilizers can also deplete the soil, as well as run off to pollute water. Big livestock farms and feed lots – often owned and operated by corporations – can cause pollution problems with the mountains of manure they produce.
- Waste disposal. As populations grow, waste disposal – especially in consumer societies, where excess packaging and a culture of throwing away items after a relatively short time create mountains of trash – becomes more of a problem. Recycling can help address this issue, and can be applied in both small ways (recycling individual soda cans) and large (reclaiming and recycling steel and other materials from a demolished office building or cargo ship).
- Loss of open space and wilderness. As population and cities expand, more and more wild places are lost to development. This affects plants, animals, and people in numerous ways – habitat loss, loss of potential or actual resources, loss of clean water, loss of the experience of wildness, and even the chance of reduction of oxygen in the atmosphere as the world’s great forests are cut down.
Both wild and domestic plants can give great pleasure and confer great benefits. As a result, they figure into any discussion of environmental quality.
- Overharvesting. In many parts of the world, some types of trees have been harvested practically to extinction, often in spite of laws protecting them. In the U.S. and elsewhere, old-growth forests – important not only for their scenic and historic value, but for the botanical lessons they can teach and for their genetic material – are fast disappearing as a result of logging operations.
- Habitat loss. As population expands, and more of the world’s land is cleared for settlement and industry, trees and plants that have evolved to live in specific places are being deprived of the places where they can grow. Furthermore, habitat loss that affects the animals and insects that help to fertilize plants harms the plants as well.
- Pollution. While some plants are resistant to, and even feed on, some pollutants, many are damaged or killed by the same substances that are harmful to people and animals. Some common chemicals and minerals – road salt, for example – that aren’t considered pollutants can nonetheless be harmful as well. Water plants can fall victim to eutrophication, and herbicides (plant killing chemicals) used to control weeds also kill desirable species.
- Invasive species. When species of plants and trees that aren’t native to a particular area are introduced there, one of three things can happen: The new plants can fail to survive in their new environment; they can adapt nicely to the new environment, and fit in well with the plants already growing there; or they can find the new environment so comfortable that they are able to take it over from native plants, forcing them out, and, eventually, causing their extinction or near-extinction. Native plants can also be destroyed by invasive species of insects, birds, and animals, which may have no predators to keep them under control in a new environment.
A classic example of an invasive plant species is kudzu, a vine originally imported to the U.S. from the Far East in the late 19th Century as an ornamental garden plant. It was spread through the American South owing to its use in erosion control and as cattle feed. It now covers millions of acres in the southeastern U.S., strangling trees, covering and overwhelming abandoned buildings and machinery, and even overgrowing empty lots, fences, and buildings in large cities.
The classic invasive, plant-damaging insect is the gypsy moth. Brought to the U.S. as part of a silkworm-breeding experiment in the late 19th Century, the gypsy moth became a pest when a few insects escaped into the Massachusetts countryside. Gypsy moth populations grow to numbers that can strip whole forests of their leaves in a few days, injuring and killing the trees. Eventually, when the population reaches a certain density, most of the insects become diseased and die, leaving time for the trees that are left to recover, and for the moths to again increase to forest-destroying numbers.
Animals – mammals, birds, insects, fish and shellfish, etc. – figure in environmental quality as well, in many of the same ways as plants.
- Pollution. Air, water, and ground pollution affect animals as well as plants and humans. For example, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), a powerful insecticide, affects the shells of the eggs of birds of prey (eagles, hawks, falcons), causing them to break when the birds sit on them.
- Habitat loss. The paving and settling of wild areas has an enormous impact on wildlife. The transformation of a wood lot into a suburb can remove food sources, protective cover, water, and room to range for various animals. Some adapt well – raccoons quite happily inhabit urban areas, for instance – but many are forced out. Animals with large ranges – bear, wolves, elk – either have trouble finding food – and starve – or are forced to compete with people, and are bound to lose.
For animals that migrate – most songbirds, caribou, monarch butterflies, salmon – habitat lost on either end of the migration or along the way will affect their health and population. As more patches of woodland turn into parking lots along the North American East Coast Flyway, songbirds have a more difficult time finding places to rest in their flights back and forth from the tropics, and many die from exhaustion along the way. As rivers are dammed and industrialized, migrating salmon disappear. As the trees in which they roost in the winter in Mexico are cut, monarch butterfly numbers decrease.
- Invasive species. As with plants, some imported animal species, often because they have no predators in their new environment, can increase in numbers and outdo the native species in competition for food, or eat them. On the island of Guam, the brown tree snake, an invader that apparently arrived in a ship’s cargo hold or in the landing gear wells of planes after World War II, has completely devastated the native species, particularly birds. Many of Guam’s bird species are no longer to be found, and many others are nearly gone.
Our civilization depends on fossil fuels, abundant water, minerals, chemicals, plants, and various other materials and substances that are part of, or derived from, the natural environment. Many of those are limited in quantity: once we run out, there aren’t any more to be had on this planet. We have to conserve what we have and use it wisely, as well as look for alternatives to replace it when it’s gone.
Conservation can take many forms. The simplest is to use less of whatever it is we’re trying to conserve. Small, hybrid, and alternative-fuel cars help to conserve oil, as well as reduce smog. Low-flow faucets and unwatered native plantings conserve water.
A second method of conservation is to change the ways we do some things in order to take advantage of energy savings. Convincing people to use public transportation instead of private cars, for instance, can save vast amounts of energy. Using recycled materials in building and manufacturing not only reduces trash, but also saves valuable resources.
A third type of conservation is the use of renewable energy sources – energy sources that aren’t going to run out. Examples are solar power, wind, biomass (from plants – wood, ethanol from corn, etc.), and even garbage and food-processing waste. Some buildings, for instance, include solar panels that generate some or all of the electricity needed in the building. Renewable sources need to be maintained – trees harvested must be replaced by new plantings, for example – if their use is to make a difference.
Converting much of our energy production and other use of resources to alternative, renewable sources is a long and difficult process, involving complex economic and political factors. Most alternative sources are only practical in certain areas, for instance (you can’t use wind power where there’s little wind), and often aren’t cheap enough to convince lots of people to use them.
Of course, if more people did use them, their production would become cheaper, and prices to the consumer would go down – always an issue with a new technology.
Economic and political factors enter into the conflict between the need to conserve resources and protect the environment, and the impulse to exploit natural resources to the greatest extent possible. In most countries, the drive for energy, job development, and profit often overpowers any consideration for the value of the natural environment, or the needs of future generations.
One example of this conflict can be seen in the U.S. National Forest system. The National Forest system has, practically since its beginnings, been a battleground of sorts among those who would like to protect the forests from any cutting at all, those who see some cutting as healthy and beneficial to the forests as well as to the public, and those who want to exploit the forests for lumber with little concern for their other uses.
The built environment
The built environment includes anything made or shaped by humans, from houses to highways to city parks to oil-drilling platforms. We may often think of it in opposition to the natural environment, but it. too, is where we live, and we can make it both healthy and pleasant.
- Open/green space. Almost ever since there have been cities, people have understood the need for open space as well as buildings. In the process of development, communities can address one element of environmental quality by preserving or creating open and green space (conservation or wilderness areas, parks, tree-lined streets, pedestrian areas, etc.)
- Environmental quality of buildings. Buildings can be constructed, renovated, and repaired with an eye to their effects on the people that occupy them and the environment of the community. Minimizing or eliminating the use of toxic materials (glues, varnishes and paints, solvents, cleaners, etc.), ensuring adequate air circulation, using non-polluting and passive energy sources (such as large windows to catch winter sun), and proper waste disposal all help to safeguard the health of occupants and the environment. Designing buildings that minimize energy and water use, positioning them for climate control, using recycled materials where possible, and landscaping with native plants that need little or no fertilizing or irrigation enhance environmental quality in the community.
- Light pollution. The lights of cities, shopping areas, even small towns are so bright that they can light up areas far from population centers, and block out the stars. Much of this light pollution could be eliminated by the use of shielded lights that reflect the light downward to the ground, where it is needed anyway, rather than into the sky.
- Noise pollution. Cities are loud. Traffic and construction noise in some places can be loud enough to damage hearing over time. Controlling noise – which can contribute to stress-related diseases as well as hearing loss – is an important contribution to the quality of the built environment.
While national, state, and local parks, forests, preserves, and wildlife refuges are often meant to be used for such recreational activities as hiking, boating, and nature study, they can also be threatened by some of these and other uses. Yosemite National Park in California has long been in danger of being loved to death by the huge crowds of summer visitors who come to be dazzled by its natural beauty. Too many visitors – even if they’re all reasonably careful – can erode trails, fill valleys with smog from their cars, and overwhelm waste disposal systems.
Some types of recreation are simply inappropriate for particular environments. All-terrain vehicles (ATV’s), for example, leave tracks in the desert that remain for decades, in addition to causing noise pollution. Dirt bikes quickly erode and destroy woodland trails. Yet each of these is allowed on some protected lands because of political considerations. Maintaining environmental quality can mean balancing the recreational value of protected lands with the needs of the land itself.
One of the ways we evaluate our environment – natural and built – is by how it looks. We value natural beauty – that’s why all those people go to Yosemite in the first place – and we like to see trees and brightly-colored plantings on our city streets. Yet some of the most beautiful landscapes – high mountains, ocean beaches – also harbor important resources, or are highly desirable places to live. The conflict between environmental quality and resources or development is often one between beauty and economics or necessity. Protecting environmental quality can sometimes mean protecting beauty at the expense of resources...and sometimes vice versa (allowing a wind farm on a hilltop in order to benefit from clean, renewable energy, for instance).
Decide on the issues you can most effectively tackle
This decision should be made with a number of factors in mind:
The actual or potential size and strength of your group. If you’re small, and have little influence, you may be able to take on a local issue, but a national one – unless you’re linked with other groups – is probably beyond your scope.
The profile of the issue. If the issue is one that most people already know and are concerned about, that makes for an easier task than if you have to raise everyone’s awareness that the issue even exists
Resources. A legal or advocacy effort usually takes money, and always takes the work of many people. If these aren’t available, you’re limited in what you can expect to accomplish.
The importance and immediacy of the issue. All that being said, some issues are so important, and the timeline to address them so short, that you simply have to act, regardless of whether or not all the other factors have fallen into place. If a developer is about to build a huge subdivision right next to an undeveloped scenic and well-loved lake, with no clear plan for sewage management; if a cement plant is dumping sludge into the aquifer that feeds the town’s wells; if a heavy metals reprocessing plant is asking for a zoning variance to build next to the school – then it’s necessary to take on the issue.
All these examples actually occurred, or are occurring, in one small area in New England.
Learn what you need to know about the scientific, social, economic, legal, and political realities of the situation
No environmental issue exists in a vacuum. It’s vital to understand the implications of everything you do, and of the situation as a whole.
The history of the situation
Has this come up before? What happened, and what was the outcome? Does that affect what’s happening now? Who was involved, and where are they now? Knowing what went before can keep you from repeating others’ mistakes, and can give you a better sense of who your allies might be and why.
The science involved, if any
What exactly are those chemicals that are being dumped into the river, and what are their short- and long-term effects on people’s and animals’ health and on the environment as a whole? How does solar power actually work, and what are its real costs and benefits? It’s your job to have the answers to the questions that are likely to be asked about your issue. That doesn’t mean you have to be a nuclear physicist, but it does mean that you should study the literature about the issue, and find people who are nuclear physicists (or hydrologists, or biologists, or...) who can help you understand the issue better, answer technical questions more fully, and lend their credibility to your effort.
Having the technical information can be crucial. In the case of the large development by the lake mentioned above, the opposition group engaged an engineer who was able to demonstrate to the Planning Board that the developer had not adequately explained how he was going to deal with water and waste management to protect the lake and the protected land around it. The developer was sent back to do a more realistic environmental impact study.
Having the scientific or technical information at hand will both convince others that you know what you’re talking about, and keep you from making mistakes that your opponents can pounce on to show that you don’t understand the situation, or are lying about it.
The social, economic, and political implications of your effort
These are taken together because the social, the economic, and the political are often intertwined, especially when it comes to environmental issues. We’ve already referred to the balancing of recreational values, the need for resources, and environmental quality, all of which encompass all three of these interconnected areas. How many jobs in the community does that polluting factory provide? Which politicians did the CEO of that mining company give thousands of dollars to, or go to college with? How strong are the lobbying efforts of the industry you hope to regulate? How strongly do people in the community feel about the right of a property owner to do whatever she pleases with her own property? These are the kinds of questions that need to be considered before you come up with a strategy for addressing the issue. They’ll help you understand where your advantages are, what barriers you’re facing, who your allies and opponents might be, and what kinds of tactics could be most effective.
We’ve mentioned opponents more than once. It’s likely that you’ll have some, and they may be extremely powerful Powerful or not, they may be as convinced as you are that they’re on the right side of the issue, and that their position is in the best interest of the public. It’s extremely important not to demonize them, but to listen carefully to what they have to say, to accord them the same respect you hope they’ll accord you, and to admit when they make sense. If they are in fact people of good will, perhaps you can convince them that your course is the better one for the community, or come to some compromise that will satisfy, if not entirely please, both of you. It’s much better, at the end of the day, to end up with friends or colleagues than enemies.
By the same token, some opponents care for little but their own advantage and well-being, and will think nothing of lying, using threats, and otherwise acting in underhanded ways to get what they want. If that’s who your opponents are – and make sure you can tell the difference – then you’ll have to be as tough as they are. Use any political clout you can muster (see below), get the dirt on them, call them on their lies in public, and use whatever legal tactics will work to defeat them.
Protecting environmental quality is not a task for loners. History is full of stories of deep pockets and political power being offset by broad-based grass roots movements. The more people you can educate about the issue (that may be one part of your strategic plan) and involve in your effort, the better your position will be.
In addition to concerned community members, you should look for some experts in the field – scientists, engineers, environmental lawyers – who share your concerns, and can help with technical questions and public education. Perhaps even more important, seek out local, state, and national politicians who are interested in the issue, and are willing to champion, or at least support, your cause. A final crucial group to enlist is the media: if you can make friends with reporters and editors at various media outlets, you can make sure your side of the story will be heard.
The three steps referred to so far beg the question of whether or not you have a formal organization of some sort doing this work. You may already be an environmental organization, you may be an organization of another sort that’s concerned with an environmental issue or with environmental quality in general, or you may be just starting out in reaction to an environmental need.
The bias of the Tool Box here is that an organization of some sort – whether one that already exists, or one that you form as you recruit people to work on the issue – is important. It can be relatively informal, but an effort needs a coordinating function, and that comes much more easily with some sort of structure. An organization also gives you an identity and credibility that make it easier for people to recognize and join your effort.
Now that you’ve decided on and learned about the issues you’ll attend to, and have at least begun attracting people to the cause, it’s time to plan your effort. As we repeat continually in the Tool Box, the best planning process in most circumstances is participatory, involving as many sectors of the community and as many groups affected by the issues as possible. This type of process brings community ownership of and support for whatever plan emerges, and results in everyone being committed to making the plan work.
Depending on the issues you’re addressing, the timelines involved, and the reasons for mounting this effort, you might need to approach either one or both of two possibilities:
- A plan for what you want to do. This may be a long-term strategy to enhance or maintain environmental quality in the community over time.It might, for instance, involve protecting areas that aren’t currently threatened, or work on persuading community officials to offer incentives to developers who agree to adhere to environmentally responsible building principles or to LEED standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the environmental building standards of the U.S. Green Building Council). You might decide to try to raise money to purchase sensitive tracts of land before they get developed, or to form a land trust to work with property owners and community officials to preserve open space. The main point here is that these are plans for actions that will work to protect environmental quality, but aren’t reactions to an immediate threat.
- A plan for what you must do.This represents the other side of the coin: a strategy to stave off looming or already-occurring environmental disaster. There might be a need to stop a polluter from dumping toxic material, for instance, or to stop a developer from paving over a sensitive woodland or wetland. A coal-fired power plant might be scheduled to be built next door to a school or a residential neighborhood. Whatever the issue, it demands action, and fast. Plans here are shorter-term, although your strategy should include what you’ll have to do to maintain or reverse the problem once you get rid of the immediate damage or danger.
There are five elements that should at the very least be considered in your planning:
Advocacy.Virtually any strategic plan for protecting environmental quality must include a plan for advocacy. Whether or not you can persuade a legislator or other politician to champion your cause, you have to advocate constantly with both officials and the public if you expect to make any gains at all. It’s crucial to any successful community action, especially one that may involve legislation or regulation, as environmental issues often do. You should organize for and engage in advocacy as part of any strategy for protecting environmental quality. It can be your most useful tool for putting the first three of the other four elements in place.
Laws, regulations, and policies. One way to make sure that particular environmental benefits are achieved and particular negative actions or consequences are avoided is to get laws passed that protect environmental quality. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts in the U.S. referred to earlier set standards and established penalties that make it easier for agencies, communities, and citizens to prevent or halt activities that cause pollution or affect water supply. Many other state and federal laws describe what activities can and can not be carried out on public lands, set aside land for wildlife or as wilderness, regulate vehicle emissions, etc.
Although there are many laws that affect environmental quality, the only effective ones are those that are enforced, and that have penalties that actually hurt. It’s actually more profitable for many large corporations to ignore environmental laws and pay the small fines called for in the legislation than to obey the law. Unless environmental behavior is carefully monitored and enforced, and unless the punishment for breaking the law is significant, lawmakers might as well not have bothered.
Another possible course here is to try to repeal or change existing laws that work against environmental quality. These may be laws that allow environmentally damaging procedures, or laws that provide no enforcement or no penalties for breaking them.
In addition to specific laws, the regulations and policies of government agencies and communities can set environmental standards as well. They often control such things as what activities are permitted on protected lands, where vehicles are allowed, the number of visitors permitted at a site, etc.
A particular regulation that can have great environmental consequences is the zoning bylaw. Virtually every community has a zoning code that specifies where in the community businesses can be carried on, how big a house lot must be, how close to the road or the edge of a lot a house can be built, how many people or animals can live in a unit of a given size, etc. Zoning bylaws can also set aside town land for conservation, watershed protection, or other reasons, and can have a profound influence on the character of the community. For that reason, participating in the drafting or changing of zoning bylaws can be an important part of protecting environmental quality.
Incentives. To protect environmental quality, offering businesses and industry, developers, and others something positive in return for their cooperation is sometimes more effective than passing regulatory laws (although it may take laws to provide incentives as well). Tax breaks for building green or installing anti-pollution technology, subsidies for using alternative energy, trading a site that needs to be protected for another in a better location for development – all of these and much more can help convince businesses and individuals that protecting environmental quality can be profitable as well as socially responsible.
Education. The more clearly everyone – the public at large, legislators and policy makers, business and industry, developers – understands the real consequences of various courses of action in relation to the environment, the easier it should be to gain public and other support for going in the right direction (or for a public discussion to determine what the right direction is). The media can help here, as can having the best possible scientific and other information. Surveys in the U.S. continually show that a great majority of citizens are concerned about the environment – but few actually have enough information to make informed decisions about it. In general, the more informed they are, the more likely they are to opt for environmental quality over other considerations.
There are, and always will be, exceptions here. People whose jobs depend on industries that tend to damage the environment can’t be expected to walk away from them, especially if they lack the skills to easily find work elsewhere. Like so many other things in life – and as we’ve already stated here – protecting environmental quality can be a balancing act – between the short and the long term, between the needs of individuals or groups and the needs of the community, between differing philosophies about what’s in the best interests of all the people, between resources and wilderness, etc. These balances are hard to resolve and achieve, but the task is somewhat easier if everyone has the same accurate information.
Direct action. This may involve anything from a letter-writing campaign to a public demonstration to civil disobedience to a lawsuit. It’s a matter of getting a large group of people to raise their voices in support or protest of environmentally-related laws, policy decisions, and actions.
Implement your plan
Carry out the activities and strategy you’ve come up with. It’s often wise to start with something that may be a stretch, but that you know can be achieved. This will build morale, and provide energy for the next task, which may be harder. Don’t lose sight of your long-term strategy, if you have one, or of your ultimate goal, but approach it one step, or one action, at a time. Spread yourself too thin, and you’ll lose momentum and people.
The exception here is advocacy: it should begin when you do, and continue throughout your effort (and afterwards as well).
Monitor and evaluate your efforts
Each tactic that you use, each action that you take, as well as your overall strategy, should be looked at carefully. Are you doing just what you set out to do? Is it working as you expected? What changes should you make – now or in the future – to improve it? Should you be doing it at all? Were the results what you expected? Was the situation what you judged it to be? What should you do next, given the results of this action or tactic?
These questions and more will help you to respond to changes in (or your misjudgments about) the situation, and to change your tactics or actions so that you can be more successful next time. Evaluation should be ongoing throughout the life of the effort.
Maintain your gains, and do it again
Once you’ve accomplished what you’ve set out to do, you’re still not finished. Protecting environmental quality isn’t a one-time thing – it goes on continually. World population – or the population of your community, in most cases – isn’t getting any smaller, and the tensions between the needs of that expanding population and the need to protect a certain amount and certain kinds of open space, to conserve resources, and to control pollution and other health concerns aren’t going to go away. You often have to work just as hard to maintain environmental quality as you did to achieve it in the first place. And you’ll have to fight for it in another situation, and another – guaranteed – indefinitely.
The quality of a community’s environment affects the health and well-being of everyone in that community. Environmental quality is inseparable not only from the health of individuals, but from the availability and quality of resources, the safety of the food and water supply, and the psychological and social well-being of the community as a whole.
Protecting environmental quality certainly means, in many cases, preserving open space and stopping or preventing pollution, but it also means addressing habitat reduction for plants and animals, conserving resources (including foodstocks, such as fish populations), seeking alternative energy sources, practicing sustainable development and agriculture, building according to environmentally-responsible principles – in other words, paying attention to environment quality in everything we do. It also means working – through both political advocacy and direct action – for policies, laws, and regulations that take all these into account, as well as the spiritual, recreational, and aesthetic benefits of open space and wilderness. And it means continuing to maintain environmental protection and continuing to work to ensure that future generations enjoy adequate resources and a healthy environment.
Earth First! is a radical environmental movement (not an organization). Loosely organized affinity groups work locally, using direct action, the courts, civil disobedience, and monkeywrenching (i.e. environmental sabotage) to address environmental issues.
Environmental Defense Fund is an environmental protection organization that engages in public education, legislation, and litigation in support of the environment. It sponsors Scorecard.org, with information about pollution in every county in the U.S.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides information on a wide variety of topics, including pollution, air quality, health, sustainable practices, etc.
The Internet Consumer Recycling Guide provides information for people with regular household quantities of materials to recycle with the goal of making recycling so easy and automatic that it blends into the flow of everyday life.
Recycle City is an EPA site for kids that details how a community can reuse, reprocess, or recycle almost everything.
The Sierra Club, one of the oldest, largest, and most influential grassroots environmental organizations in the United States.
The U.S. Green Building Council, developer of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.
WWF International (originally the World Wildlife Fund), promotes biodiversity, the use of sustainable resources, and the reduction of wasteful consumption and pollution. There is also a United States-based arm.
Carson, Rachel. The Silent Spring.