State of the Environment by the Council on Environmental Quality (1970)

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The State of the Environment (1970)
Council on Environmental Quality
Council Members, Russell E. Train, Robert Cahn, and Gordon J. MacDonald

Chapter One

Historian may one day call 1970 the year of the environment. They may not be able to say that 1970 actually marked a significant change for the better in the quality of life; in the polluting and the fouling of the land, the water, and the air; or in health, working conditions, and recreational opportunity. Indeed, they are almost certain to see evidence of worsening environmental conditions in many parts of the country.

Yet 1970 marks the beginning of a new emphasis on the environment - a turning point, a year when the quality of life has become more than a phrase; environment and pollution have become everyday words; and ecology has become almost a religion to some of the young. Environmental problems, standing for many years on the threshold of national prominence, are now at the center of nationwide concern. Action to improve the environment has been launched by government at all levels. And private groups, industry, and individuals have joined the attack.

No one can say for sure just how or why the environment burst into national prominence in 1970. Certainly national concern had been mounting for a long time, and the tempo has increased greatly in the last decade.

Early environmentalists - Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold - and a legion of dedicated citizens contributed to the rise in awareness. In its early days, the conservation movement aimed primarily at stemming the exploitation of natural resources and preserving wildlife and important natural areas. By the 1950's, Federal air and water pollution laws had been enacted, and the pace of environmental legislation quickened dramatically in the decade of the 1960's. Now the conservation movement has broadened to embrace concern for the totality of man's environment, focusing on pollution, population, ecology, and the urban environment.

The public has begun to realize the interrelationship of all living things - including man - with the environment. The Santa Barbara oil spill in early 1969 showed an entire nation how one accident could temporarily blight a large area. Since then, each environmental issue - the jetport project near the Everglades National Park, the proposed [[w:Trans-Alaska Pipelines System#Origins|pipeline across the Alaskan wilderness, the worsening blight of Lake Erie, the polluted beaches off New York and other cities, smog in mile-high Denver, lead in gasoline, phosphates in detergents, and DDT - flashed the sign to Americans that the problems are everywhere and affect everyone. Millions of citizens have come to realize that the independent web of life - man, animals, plants, earth, air, water, and sunlight - touches everyone.

A deteriorating environment has awakened a lively curiosity in Americans about exactly what is meant by an ecosystem, biome, or the biosphere. Citizens who are now aware of environmental problems want to know the full extent of the environmental crisis and the nature of the factors that have contributed to it. They are anxious to learn what can be done to correct the mistakes that have led to the current conditions of the environment. This report attempts to answer some of these questions.

Ecology is the science of the intricate web of relationships between living organisms and their living and nonliving surroundings. These interdependent living and nonliving parts make up ecosystems. Forests, lakes, and estuaries are examples. Larger ecosystems or combinations of ecosystems, which occur in similar climates and share a similar character and arrangement of vegetation, are biomes. The Arctic tundra, prairie grasslands, and the desert are examples. The earth, its surrounding enveloe of life-giving water and air, and all its living things comprise the biosphere. Finally, man's total environmental system includes not only the biosphere but also his interactions with his natural and manmade surroundings.

Changes in ecosystems occur continuously. Myriad interactions take place at every moment of the day as plants and animals respond to variations in their surroundings and to each other. Evolution has produced for each species, including man, a genetic composition that limits how far that species can go in adjusting to sudden changes in its surroundings. But within these limits the several thousand species in an ecosystem, or for that matter, the millions in the biosphere, continuously adjust to outside stimuli. Since interactions are so numerous, they form long chains of reactions. Thus small changes in one part of an ecosystem are likely to be felt and compensated for eventually throughout the system.

Dramatic examples of changes can be seen where man has altered the course of nature. It is vividly evident in his well-intentioned but poorly thought out tampering with river and lake ecosystems. The Aswan Dam was primarily built to generate electric power. It produced power, but it also reduced the fish population in the Mediterranean, increased the numbers of disease-bearing aquatic snails, and markedly lowered the fertility of the Nile Valley.

In the United States, the St. Lawrence Seaway has contributed to the economic growth of the Great Lakes region. Yet it had done so at a high and largely unforeseen cost to the environment. The completion of the Welland Canal let the predatory sea lamprey into the Great Lakes. Trout, which had been the backbone of the lakes' fishing industry, suffered greatly from the lamprey invasion. By the mid-1950's the trout and some large, commercial predatory fish were nearly extinct. And with their near extinction, smaller fish, especially the alewife, normally kept under control by these predators, proliferated. The aggressive alewife dominated the food supply and greatly reduced the numbers of small remaining native fish, such as the lake herring. The alewife became so numerous, in fact, that on occasion great numbers died and the dead fish along the shore caused a major public nuisance.

Man attempted to restore the ecological balance by instituting sea lamprey control in the 1950's and the 1960's and by stocking the lakes with coho salmon beginning in 1965 - to replace the lost native predatory fish. Feeding on the abundant alewife, the salmon multiplied rapidly and by 1969 had become important both as a commercial and sport resource. Some of the salmon, however, were contaminated by excessive concentrations of DDT and were taken off the commercial market.

The lesson is not that such activities as the St. Lawrence Seaway must be halted, but that the consequences of construction must be carefully studied in advance of construction. Planners and managers must begin to appreciate the enormous interrelated complexity of environmental systems, weigh the tradeoffs of potential environmental harm against the benefits of construction, look at alternatives, and incorporate environmental safeguards into the basic design of new developments.

The stability of a particular ecosystem depends on its diversity. The more inter-dependencies in an ecosystem, the greater the chances that it will be able to compensate for changes imposed upon it. A complex tropical forest with a rich mosaic of inter-dependencies possess much more stability than the limited plant and animal life found on the Arctic tundra, where instability triggers frequent, violent fluctuations in some animal populations, such as lemmings and foxes. The least stable systems are the single crops - called monocultures - created by man. A cornfield or lawn has little natural stability. If they are not constantly and carefully cultivated, they will not remain cornfields or lawns but will soon be overgrown with a wide variety of hardier plants constituting a more stable ecosystem.

The chemical elements that make up living systems also depend on complex, diverse sources to prevent cyclic shortages or oversupply. The oxygen cycle, which is crucial to survival, depends upon a vast variety of green plants notably plankton in the ocean. Similar diversity is essential for the continued functioning of the cycle by which atmospheric nitrogen is made available to allow life to exist. This cycle depends on a wide variety of organisms, including soil bacteria and fungi, which are often destroyed by persistent pesticides in the soil.

Although pollution may be the most prominent and immediately pressing environmental concern, it is only one facet of the many-sided environmental problem. It is a highly visible, sometimes dangerous sign of environmental deterioration. Pollution occurs when materials accumulate where they are not wanted. Overburdened natural processes cannot quickly adjust to the heavy load of materials which man, or sometimes nature, adds to them. Pollution threatens natural systems, human health, and aesthetic sensibilities; it often represents valuable resources out of place. DDT, for instance, is a valuable weapon in combating malaria. But DDT, when out of place - for example in lakes and streams - concentrates in fish, other wildlife, and the smaller living things on which they depend.

Historically, man has assumed that the land, water, and air around him would absorb his waste products. The ocean, the atmosphere, and even the earth were viewed as receptacles of infinite capacity. It is clear now that man may be exceeding nature's capacity to assimilate his wastes.

Most pollutants eventually decompose and diffuse throughout the environment. When organic substances are discarded, they are attacked by bacteria and decompose through oxidation. They simply rot. However, some synthetic products of our advanced technology resist natural decomposition. Plastics, some cans and bottles, and various persistent pesticides fall into this category. Many of these materials are toxic, posing a serious health danger...

Radioactive fallout from the air also concentrates through food chains. Arctic lichens do not take in food through their roots but instead absorb mineral nutrition from dust in the air. Radioactive fallout tends therefore to collect in the lichens and is further concentrated by grazing caribou, which eat huge quantities of lichen. Caribou meat is a major part of the Eskimo's diet. Although reconcentration of radioactive fallout at low levels has not been proved damaging to health, the effects of long-term, low-level exposure to radioactive pollutants are still not well known.

Water pollution is a problem throughout the country, but is most acute in densely settled or industrial sections. Organic wastes from municipalities and industries enter rivers, where they are attacked and broken down by organisms in the water. But int he process, oxygen in the river is used up. Nutrients from cities, industries, and farms nourish algae, which also use up oxygen when they die and decompose. And when oxygen is taken from the water, the river "dies." The oxygen is gone, the game fish disappear, plant growth rots, and the stench of decay reaches for miles.

Air pollution is now a problem in all parts of the United States and in all industrialized nations. It has been well known for some time to Los Angeles residents and visitors who have long felt the effect of highly visible and irritating smog from automobile exhaust. Now Los Angeles's local problem is becoming a regional problem, because noxious air pollution generated in the Los Angeles Basin has spread beyond the metropolitan areas. This same problem, which seemed unique to Los Angeles in teh 1950s is today common to major cities in the United States and abroad. Smog is but one of the many types of air pollution that plague the United States, especially its cities.

Urban land misuse is one of today's most severe environmental problems. The character of our urban areas changes rapidly. Old buildings and neighborhoods are razed and replaced by structures designed with little or not eye for their fitness to the community's needs. A jumble of suburban developments sprawls over the landscape. Furthermore, lives and property are endangered when real estate developments are built on flood plains or carved out along unstable slopes.

Unlimited access to wilderness areas may transform such areas into simply another extension of our urban, industrialized civilization. The unending summer flow of automobiles into Yosemite National Park has changed one of nature's great wilderness areas into a crowded gathering place of lessened value to its visitors. The worldwide boom in tourism, eam with rapid and cheap transportation, threatens the very values upon which tourist attraction is based.

The proposed jetport west of Miami and north of the Everglades raised a dramatic land use problem. The jetport, together with associated transportation corridors, imperiled a unique ecological preserve. Planners for the jetport had considered density of population, regional transportation needs, and host of other related variables. But they gave slight consideration to the wildlife and recreational resources of the Everglades. The jetport could have spawned a booming residential, commercial, and industrial complex which would have diminished water quality and without question drastically altered the natural water cycle of Southern Florida. This in turn would have endangered all aquatic species and wildlife within the park and beyond.

Natural resource depletion is a particular environmental concern to a highly technological society which depends upon resources for energy, building materials, and recreation. And the methods of exploiting resources often create problems that are greater than the value of the resources themselves.

A classic case was the Federal Government's decision to permit oil drilling in California's Santa Barbara Channel. There, primary value was placed on development of the oil resources. The commercial, recreational, aesthetic, and ecological values, which are also important to the resident of Santa Barbara and to the Nation, were largely ignored. The President recently proposed to the Congress that the Federal Government cancel the 20 Federal leases seaward from the State sanctuary extending 16 miles along the Santa Barbara Channel. This is where the blowout erupted in January 1969, spreading a coat of oil across hundreds of square miles including the sanctuary. This action illustrates a commitment to use offshore lands in a balanced and responsible way.

Environmental problems seldom stem from simple causes. Rather they usually rise out of the interplay of many contributing circumstances.

Many individuals cite selfish profit seekers for environmental degradation, rather than laying much of the blame - where it belongs - to misplaced incentives in the economic system. Progress in environmental problems is impossible without a clearer understanding of how the economic system works in the environment and what alternatives are available to take away the many roadblocks to environmental quality.

Our price system fails to take into account the environmental damage that the polluter inflicts on others. Economists call these damages - which are very real - "external social costs." They reflect the ability of one entity, e.g., a company, to use water or air as a free resource for waste disposal, while others pay the cost in contaminated air or water. If there were a way to make the price structure shoulder these external costs - taxing the firm for the amount of discharge, for instance - then the price for the goods and services produced would reflect these costs. Failing this, goods whose production spawn pollution are greatly underpriced because the purchaser does not pay for pollution abatement that would prevent environment damage. Not only does this failure encourage pollution but it warps the price structure. A price structure that took environmental degradation into account would cause a shift in prices, hence a shift in consumer preferences and, to some extent, would discourage buying pollution-producing products.

Another type of misplaced incentive lies imbedded in the tax structure. The property tax, for example, encourages architectural design that leans more to rapid amortization than to quality. It may also encourage poor land use because of the need for communities to favor industrial development and discourage property uses, such as high-density housing, which cost more in public services than they produce in property taxes. Other taxes encourage land speculation and the leap-frog development that has become the trademark of the urban-rural fringe.

Americans have placed a high priority on convenience and consumer goods. In recent times they have learned to value the convenience and comfort of modern housing, transportation, communication, and recreation above clean earth, sky, and water. A majority, like a prodigal son, have been willing to consumer vasts amounts of resources and energy, failing to understand how their way of life may choke off open space, forests, clean air, and clean water. It is only recently that the public has become conscious of some of the conflicts between convenience and a deteriorating environment.

In the early days of westward expansion, a period in which many national values were shaped, choices did not seem necessary. The forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, fish, and wildlife of the continent seem inexhaustible. Today choices based on values must be made at every turn. Values can be gauged to some degree by the costs that the Nation is collectively willing to incur to protect them. Some of the costs of environmental improvements can be paid with local, State, and Federal tax money. But paying taxes and falling back on government programs is not enough. People may ultimately have to forgo some conveniences and pay higher prices for some goods and services.

Americans are just beginning to measure the magnitude of the impact of population and its distribution on their environment. The concept that population pressures are a threat to the Nation's well-being and to its environment is difficult to grasp in a country which, during its formative decades, had an ever receding western frontier. That frontier ended at the Pacific many years ago. And it is at the western end of the frontier that some of the most serious problems of population growth emerge most clearly.

California continues to lure large numbers of Americans from all over the country, in large part because of its climate and its beauty. But as the people come, the pressures of population mount. Smog, sprawl, erosion, loss of beaches, the scarring of beautiful areas, and the congestion of endless miles of freeways have caused thoughtful Californians to consider stemming the continued uncontrolled development of their State. When the Governor's Conference on California's Changing Environment met last fall, it agreed that there was now a need "to deemphasize growth as a social goal and, rather, to encourage development within an ideal and quality environment."

The magnitude of the press of population, although significant, must be put in perspective. This is a vast country, and its potential for assimilating population is impressive, although there is disagreement over what level of population would be optimum. Some authorities believe that the optimum level has already been passed, other that it has not yet been reached. More troublesome, population control strikes at deeply held religious values and at the preference of some Americans for large families.

Population density outside metropolitan areas is not high. There is a desire - indeed an almost inevitable compulsion - to concentrate population in urban areas - primarily in the coastal and Great Lakes regions. If the trend continues, 70 to 80 percent of all Americans will be concentrated in five large urban complexes by the year 2000. The pressures that cause environmental problems that the Nation now confronts - water and air pollution and inefficient land use - will only increase.

Population growth threatens the Nation's store of natural resources. Currently the United States, with about 6 percent of the world's population, uses more than 40 percent of the world's scarce or nonreplaceable resources and a like ratio of its energy output. Assuming a fixed or nearly fixed resource base, continued population growth embodies profound implications for the United States and for the world.

The major environmental problems of today began with the Industrial Revolution. Belching smoke from factory stacks and the dumping of raw industrial wastes into rivers became the readily identified, but generally ignored hallmarks of "progress" and production. They are no longer ignored, but the extraordinary growth of the American economy continues to outpace the efforts to deal with its unwanted by-products.

The growth of the economy has been marked not just by greater production but also by an accelerating pace of technological innovation. This innovation, although it has provided new solutions to environmental problems, has also created a vast range of new problems. New chemicals, new uses for metals, new means of transportation, novel consumer goods, new medical techniques, and new industrial processes all represent potential hazards to man and his surroundings. The pace of technological innovation has exceeded our scientific and regulatory ability to control its injurious side effects. The environmental problems of the future will increasingly spring from the wonders of the 20th-century technology. In the future, technology assessment mus be used to understand the direct and secondary impacts of technological innovation.

The extraordinary, growing mobility of the American people constitutes another profound threat to the environment - in at least three major ways. The physical movement of people crowds in on metropolitan centers and into recreation areas, parks and wild areas. Mobility permits people to live long distances from their places of employment stimulating ever greater urban and suburban sprawl. The machines of this mobility - particularly automobiles and aircraft - themselves generate noise, air pollution, highways, and airports - all in their way affecting the environment.

The automobile freed Americans from the central city and launched the flight to the suburbs. As a consequence, thousands of acres of undeveloped land all prey each year to the bulldozer. More single-family, detached homes shoulder out the open spaces. Many of these developments are drab in design and wasteful of land. They denude the metropolitan area of trees and thus affect climate; they cause erosion, muddy rivers, and increase the cost of public services.

Most government agencies charged with solving environmental problems were not originally designed to deal with the severe tasks they now face. And their focus is often too narrow to cope with the broad environmental problems that cut across many jurisdictions. Agencies dealing with water pollution, for example, typically do not have jurisdiction over the geographic problem area - the watersheds. Control is split instead among sewerage districts, municipalities, and a multitude of other local institutions. To attack water pollution effectively may require establishing new river basin authorities or state-wide basin agencies with the power to construct, operate, and assess for treatment facilities.

Public decisions, like private decisions, suffer from the inadequate balancing of short-run economic choices against long-term environmental protection. There is a nearly irresistible pressure on local government to develop land in order to increase jobs and extend the tax base - even if the land is valuable open space or an irreplaceable marsh. The problem is amplified by the proliferation of agencies, all competing narrowly, without consideration of broader and often common goals. The development that generates economic benefits in a town upstream may create pollution and loss of recreation in a town downstream.

Sometimes people persist in actions which cause environmental damage because they do not know that they are causing it. Construction of dams, extensive paving of land surfaces, and filling of estuaries for industrial development have in many cases been carried out with incomplete or wrong information about the extent of the impact on the environment. Furthermore, change in the environment has often been slow and exceedingly difficult to detect, even though piecemeal changes may eventually cause irreversible harm. Widespread use of certain types of pesticides, mercury pollution, and the use of dangerous substances such as asbestos occurred without advance recognition of their potential for harm.

The impact of environmental deterioration on health in subtle, often becoming apparent only after the lapse of many years. The speed of change in a rapidly altering technological society and the complex causes of many environmental health problems produce major uncertainty about what environmental changes can do to human well-being. Nevertheless, it is clear that today's environment has a large and adverse impact on the physical and emotional health of an increasing number of Americans.

Air pollution has been studied closely for the past 10 years, and its tie to emphysema and chronic bronchitis is becoming more evident. These two disease are major causes of chronic disability, lost work days, and mortality in industrial nations. Estimates of deaths attributable to bronchitis and emphysema are beset with doubts about cause; nevertheless, physicians have traced 18,000 more deaths in the United States to these two causes in 1966 than 10 years earlier - an increase of two and one-half times. The increase of sulfur oxides, photochemical oxidants, and carbon monoxide in the air is related to hospital admission rates and length of stay for respiratory and circulatory cases.

Whether the accumulation of radioactive fallout in body tissues will eventually produce casualties cannot be predicted now, but close surveillance is needed. Nor has a direct correlation between factors in the urban environment and major malignancies of the digestive, respiratory, and urinary tracts been established. But the frequency of these diseases is much higher in cities than in non-urban environments.

The impact of the destruction of the environment on man's perceptions and aspirations cannot be measured. Yet today citizens are seeking better environments, not only to escape pollution and deterioration but to find their place in the larger community of life. It is clear that few prefer crowding, noise, fumes, and foul water to aesthetically pleasing surroundings. Objections today to offensive sights, odors, and sounds are more widespread than ever. And these mounting objections are an important indicator of what Americans are unwilling to let happen to the world about them.

The economic costs of pollution are massive - billions of dollars annually. Paint deteriorates faster, cleaning bills are higher, and air filtering systems become necessary. Direct costs to city dwellers can be measured in additional household maintenance, cleaning, and medical bills. Air pollution causes the housewife to do her laundry more often. The farmer's crop yield is reduced or destroyed. Water pollution prevents swimming, boating, fishing, and other recreational and commercial activities, highly valued in today's world.

Vast natural systems may be severely damaged by the improvident intervention of man. The great Dust Bowl of the 1930's was born in the overuse of land resources. Many estuarine areas have been altered and their ecology permanently changed. On a global scale, air pollution could trigger large-scale climatic changes. Man may also be changing the forces in the atmosphere through deforestation, urban construction, and the spilling of oil on ocean waters.

In the short run, much can be done to reverse the deadly downward spiral in environmental quality. Citizens, industries, and all levels of government have already begun to act in ways which will improve environmental quality. The President's February 10 Message on the Environment spelled out some specific steps which can be taken now.

It is clear, however, that long-range environmental improvement must take into account the complex interactions of environmental processes. In the future, the effects of man's actions on complete ecosystems must be considered if environmental problems are to be solved.

Efforts to solve problems in the past have merely tried - not very successfully - to hold the line against pollution and exploitation. Each environmental problem was treated in an ad hoc fashion, while the strong, lasting interactions between various parts of the problem were neglected. Even today most environmental problems are dealt with temporarily, incompletely, and often only after they have become critical.

The isolated response is symptomatic of the environmental crisis. Americans in the past have not adequately used existing institutions to organize knowledge about the environment and to translate it into policy and action. The environment cuts across established institutions and disciplines. Men are beginning to recognize this and to contemplate new institutions. And this is a hopeful sign.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).