Monday, July 15, 2013


“Human society can be envisioned as interacting with the environment in two ways: as a source for natural resources, and a sink for emissions and wastes.  The environmental problems […] are all related to overuse at both sources and sinks.  Overuse at sources shows up as depletion and the reduced quantity and quality of resources.  Overuse at sinks shows up as unbalancing the harmony of previously natural resources.”  From Timothy G. Gutowski’s introduction to the chapter “Design and Manufacturing for the Environment”, in the HANDBOOK OF MECHANICAL ENGINEERING.

This simple summation explains much about how America became civilized and the resulting problems this un-civilizing process have caused.  In this view of the world, human society is seen as separate from this infinite thing we call environment, and human needs always come first when we decide how to interact with this outside entity.  The environment is valued simply for the services it can provide us.   In this model, our problems with the environment are seen as the result of our limited capacity to tap the resources and or the environments ability to absorb our wastes.   We try to solve any environmental problems that crop up by looking elsewhere in our infinite supply store for new or replacement sources of our feedstock or rely on new inventions to increase our ability to obtain or utilize the resources.  And if waste disposal causes us troubles we focus on increasing the capacity of the sink to be able to drain the wastes faster or we re-plumb the sink to transfer the waste from one medium where capacity is being reached, to another medium with more capacity.  And that has been the history of the settling of America. 

America also has a history of practicing the fine art of denial when it comes to facing the problems this view creates.  Denial allows us to continue consuming resources and disposing of wastes as if the environment has an infinite capacity to supply our wants.   Eventually at the local level the reality of limits can no longer be denied as resources disappear and wastes begin to cause serious problems.  But with the infinite environment view, as problems get bigger, denial gives way to the action plan of simply looking elsewhere to meet our needs or dump our wastes.  And the process starts over again.   A good example of this model in action can be seen in the “settlement” of North America by emigrating Europeans.  As the original inhabitants of Europe consumed their own resources as a result of increased population demands, along with their desire for new resources and products, they set out for new lands in which to inhabit and satisfy their wanderlust.   Coming to the shores of North America, they believed they had found a new land of once more unlimited resources there for the taking. 

What they failed to acknowledge was first of all that the land was already inhabited by a society of people who had a very different view of the world.  For probably thousands of years these native folk had a view of the world where they saw themselves as part of their surroundings that sustained them and not separate from it or above it.  Instead of learning from these original settlers the newcomers continued what they knew best, and followed their model and took the land and the resources from the natives.  They also failed to acknowledge that the country had a west coast, and after what may have seemed like an eternity to them, they eventually consumed many of the resources between the two coasts and began to drastically change the look of the land. 

A big driver or excuse for the settlement was the concept of “manifest destiny”.  This was the general belief that conquering the continent was following a Devine plan where Europeans were called to civilize the uncivilized America’s.  It was as if God was willing this settlement for the betterment of all.  And the bible told them it was so, for God Himself had told the people to “go forth and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”.  He told them “you are the masters of the fish and birds and all the animals.  And look! I have given you the seed-bearing plants throughout the earth, and all the fruit trees for your food.”  And then God looked over everything he made and proclaimed “it is excellent in every way”.   And the newcomers to the Americas who followed their black robed missionary prophets agreed – it was excellent indeed. 

Empowered with their beliefs Americans found new technologies that made it easier to subdue the wilderness, settle the land, and turn its resources into excellent products.  Inventions like the plow and cotton gin enabled gentleman plantation owners to increase their production efficiency and put their slave laborers to work planting their fields and picking their cotton.  New inventions like the steam engine could take the slaves place when they were set free.  These same engines could power the locomotives that provided access to the countries interior and eventually enabled coast to coast travel across America, along with the near extermination of the American Bison.   And as the immigrants multiplied, the burgeoning population demanded a corresponding increase in resource consumption, and hence a need for more land.   The resulting increase in conflicts between the environment and society, and between competing societies, heralded in a new inspiration – and the new science of economics was born. 

The new science was designed to smooth over the conflicts and define who had rights and who did not when it came to resource allocation.  As governments and industries become more sophisticated new methods to manage resources, production, and resulting profits were needed.   Economics was inserted between society and the environment as a way to optimize their overlaps, and tap into the profits their interactions could create.    The economy and its’ profit generating potential became the new king of the hill.  Society was downgraded to a distant second seat, and the environment as always came in last.  And to ensure that we didn’t forget whence this inspiration came, the phrase “In God We Trust” was forged into our coins.

The role of this empowered middle man was to take the natural resources from the environment, combined with the labor providing human resources from society, to create products and services that in turn met the wants of society.   The profits generated in the process satisfied the owners of the capitol who kept the economy cranking.   And cranking they did – electrical generators, transformers, and transmission lines began to power Cities and illuminate homes and businesses. Darkness would no longer slow the wheels of progress, and soot caused by the burning of oil for lamps would no longer fill the workers noses.  With Henry Ford’s assembly line innovations combined with the internal combustion engines, cars began to fill the streets and replace the horses and their ever present manure.  Oil and its many derivatives became the new clean fuel of choice replacing dirty wood and coal.  So the latest godsend of economics and his soul mate technology ushered America into a new century of seemingly limitless possibility powered by economic growth. 

As the economy cranked and the century turned from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth, American society began to attempt to deal with the consequences of denial.  Domestic resources became depleted and measures were taken to try to protect them from complete loss.  National parks and forests where carved out, and conservation agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation were formed to oversee the resources.  Attempts were also made to try and procure new resources via excursions into neighboring territories resulting in corresponding military conflicts.  Europe battled over the remaining resources of those lands and America joined in.  The war machine that was needed to produce the armament for battle helped to fine tune industrial manufacturing processes.  Propaganda used to build support for wars was transformed into advertising campaigns to encourage consumers to buy more of the latest mass manufactured marvels. 

The optimization and maximization of the manufacturing process resulted in more and more wastes to dispose of and environmental issues began to rear their numerous ugly faces.  Use of rivers as dumping grounds for waste resulted in incidents like the Cuyahoga River fires that occurred on a regular basis on this industrialized river in Ohio from the late 1800’s to the 1960’s. In the 1930’s, poor farming practices combined with an extended drought created what became known as the Dust Bowl that devastated millions of acres of farmland and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes.   Air pollution from zinc smelting and steel mills in Donora Pennsylvania killed 20 people and left over 7000 severely ill in 1948.   Dumping of chemical and other wastes into an open canal in the first half of the 1900’s created what was to become known as the Love Canal Disaster in Niagara Falls, New York where the pollutants contributed to miscarriages, nervous disorders, cancers, and birth defects in residents who lived nearby in the second half of the century. 

These latest batch of problems brought out the prophets to warn the creators of their folly.  Conservationist Aldo  Leopold who worked his way up the ranks of the Forest Service advised a need for adopting a land ethic if there was any hope for the future.  In a 1938 lecture he gave at the University of Wisconsin College of Engineering, he reminded the engineers in attendance that “[…]: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do.  They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides.  But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history:  to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”  Biologist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book SILENT SPRING proclaimed that insecticides used to protect our crops were killing more than just the insects.   She began the chapter “Earth’s Green Mantle” with the reminder that “water, soil, and the earth’s green mantle of plants make up the world that supports the animal life of the earth.  Although modern man seldom remembers the fact, he could not exist without the plants that harness the sun’s energy and manufacture the basic foodstuffs he depends upon for life.”  These reminders slipped through the cracks of the simple economic model the drove the economy.  But the Country kept the faith that the mythical powers of the “invisible hand” would make sure the economy did the right thing. 

And changes were finally made in an attempt to fine tune our environmental/societal model when a series of sweeping environmental regulations were enacted in the 1970’s and 80’s.  These regulations included the likes of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts.   These acts and the resulting rules designed to implement them operated on the idea that there was a need to control the wastes that we put into the environment.  This need was identified by the feedback we were getting from the environment that uncontrolled pollution could be quite harmful to our health and some of the other non-human life that existed out in the environment.   Legal permits and more new technology would be our savior. 

And so the economy went to work developing new treatment and control technologies and then measuring their effectiveness.  Screens and wastewater treatment processes were required to be installed on the ends of pipes coming from major sources of wastewater pollution.  Similarly treatment processes were also required to be installed on the ends of smokestacks to reduce air pollutants.  In both the air and wastewater control methodology, efforts were also made to account for the assimilation capacity of the environment to attenuate the wastes.  These practices included building taller smokestacks to take advantage of higher wind speeds to better disperse pollutants.  Wastewater treatment plants would install diffusers on the end of pipes or relocate outfalls to stream reaches with higher stream flows to also take advantage of the old adage “dilution is the solution to pollution”.   Wastes were now required to be placed in designed and lined landfills to protect the environment from the pollutants that ended up buried in them.  And hazardous wastes had to be properly disposed of.  Harmful chemicals like DDT were banned. The management tools of permits and licenses were also developed and put in place to makes sure that the sources of pollutants that needed to be controlled could be controlled and we began to monitor the effects.

The days of simply dumping our wastes in the environment seemed to be over.  New fields, like environmental: engineering, science, and even psychology began to crop up to design technologies to control and treat the pollution and understand why we polluted the way we did.  New government agencies were staffed and given orders to protect the environment and control pollution through new policies and permits.  Similar control techniques and agencies were developed and implemented on the resource management side of the economy-environment tap.  And an interesting side effect of these new methodologies where they had a positive impact on the economy – by creating new jobs and products to manage and treat our wastes.  EPA reported that cutting air pollution and building the economy could go hand and hand as the environmental technologies industries responsible for protecting and cleaning up the environment was generating $282 billion in revenue in 2007.

And progress was noted.  Besides the boom to the economy, the cleanup efforts had shrunk the hole in the ozone layer.  The American bald eagle was removed from the endangered list.  The clean air act was also reportedly responsible for saving 205,000 premature deaths, 18 million child respiratory illnesses, and 843,000 asthma attacks.  And the Clean Water Act was credited as the reason why rivers no longer burned.   Life under this revised economic model seemed good and could only get better, or so we thought.    

As controls were installed and the institutions that kept them operating came up to speed, new feedback messages picked up from environmental monitoring began to signal that we still had problems.  Our rivers weren’t on fire, and people could breathe the air without dying, but problems still existed.   We were finding that pollutants in most of our rivers and lakes made it unsafe to swim in them or to eat the fish from them.  There were stills days were people were advised to stay in doors to avoid breathing air pollutants.  New pollutants that we weren’t aware of and that our controls were not designed to remove were being detected in the environment and in us.   And warnings of global warming hit the news. 

In the 1990’s and 2000’s, bypasses around our control system were occurring.  These bypasses were coming from things we hadn’t anticipated in the first round of controls.  They included sewage bypasses from combined stormwater and wastewater sewage systems that couldn’t handle high storm surge flowrates.  Nutrients and other chemicals that conventional wastewater treatment plants could not remove were continuing to cause problems like obnoxious algae blooms in rivers and lakes.  Smaller sources of air pollution known as area sources were not required to install any controls and get a permit to regulate them.  Non-point sources of water pollution like stormwater or agricultural runoff were ignored and not regulated.  Monitoring using new techniques was allowing us to detect pollutants at lower levels than we had in the past.  The limits of our technology and our regulations to remove and control the more and more complex pollutants our economy spewed out was continuing to allow environmental problems to occur and grow. 

So we expanded our rules and regulations, we amended the Clean Air Act – several times.  More money in the forms of grants and loans was provided to communities to help them build more treatment capacity and to use new technology.  We came up with new and more complex technologies to treat our wastes.  We wrote more complicated permits and we imposed higher fines against those who dared to violate their permits – we used the stick.  And we tried new control strategies to encourage the generators of pollution to follow our lead by offering them the stick turned over with a carrot attached.  These new concepts included the likes of pollution prevention or P2 as it is often known.  We tried to sell the concept that by implementing pollution prevention practices we could avoid controls and compliance, and save money too! 

This genre of pollution control techniques encourages pollution generators to use economic incentives to encourage the use of: increased resource efficiencies, resource substitution, becoming lean, green chemistry, renewable energy, and energy efficiency.  We encourage society to do their part by finding ways to recycle some of our wastes, to use more energy efficient appliances themselves, and to always dispose of wastes responsibly.  Corporations become socially responsible and design new logos to promote their new found marketing strategy of being green, and governments and environmental organizations jump on the band wagon by coming up with green star awards and certificates to reward them with.  Sustainability is the latest buzz word we use to make us feel like we are back in control.  And most of us have bought into these new green marketing ploys. 

But like their predecessors, these new generation of pollution controls will not be able to keep up with the beast that is at the heart our problems – our ever expanding economy that is based on a model that separates what is important to us into the entities of economy first, people second, and the infinite environment that is out there last.  So as we ride into the second decade of the New Millennium, many of the problems we faced in the past don’t seem so serious anymore.  It is not because we have solved them, but more likely that we have become numb to the consequences.   Our pursuit of the fermenting “low hanging fruit” has kept us from seeing that trees are dying.  Bigger problems than we ever imagined knock on our doors daily, but most of us stick our heads in the sand, afraid to confront the monster that fuels them.  So instead of rivers that burn and air that sucks the life from our lungs, the innocuous carbon dioxide that we pour into our atmosphere is causing record breaking temperatures to heat the planet and change our climate.  Droughts, wild fires, and increasingly more intense storms become the new normal.   We read articles proclaiming that humans are currently causing the “sixth great extinction” of species that the planet has faced.   We see large rafts of garbage filling our oceans, and turn our heads as we create ever expanding landfills to try and contain the garbage that our ever expanding economy produces.   And we find dead zones in our oceans caused by the runoff from our current industrial farming practices.       

There is a saying that goes “hind sight is 20/20” meaning it is easy to see clearly the mistakes of our past, but in our world today we can’t see past the bottom of overflowing landfills, and the invisible smog from ever increasing burning of fossil fuels blinds us from having the foresight to change our course.  So like the Titanic cruising towards a collision with the iceberg, we ignore any warnings of what lies ahead, and throttle full-speed ahead toward our pending doom, reassuring ourselves of the progress we have made. Our only path out seems the foolish hope that burning what is left of our limited fossil fuels will heat the planet enough to melt  the ice burg before we strike it. 

Our denial may help us to continue to play our role in keeping our ever expanding monster of an economy in place, but it will not ease our guilty conscious.  And our excuses that there are no other alternatives, or that we need to pursue the simple things first, will not change the course we are on.  Until we admit what our problem is and until we begin to see our place on the planet we will continue to soil ourselves with our wastes, and sit in the warm mess expecting the next technical care taker to clean us up, or invent a better green colored diaper to capture our wastes, before we collide. 

The 12 Step Recovery program defines the insanity created by addiction as doing the same thing over and over again, but hoping for a different outcome.  This definition fits our own repeated patterns of dealing with our environmental problems the same way over and over again and hoping for different results.  Maybe we could take a lesson from the 12 Steppers and take the first step, and admit that our crazy view of separating ourselves from the rest of the planet is making our lives unmanageable.  By admitting our insanity, we might just realize that our Divine calling is not to subdue and separate ourselves from the rest of the world, but to realize that we are just plain co-inhabitants of this finite planet – and that it is time to start living accordingly.     

We need to come up with a real world model where we step back and see that we live on a finite planet.  We need to acknowledge that the human beings that make up our societies are simply one community of many life forms that share the planet.  We need to understand that environment is not something out there separated from us, but that we are part of the ecosystem that does sustain us.  What we do to the ecosystem we do to us – what we put in the ecosystem we put in us.   And we need to put our economy in its rightful place – namely simply as one tool that we use to meet our needs.   Until we stop our economy from controlling us and defining our wants, any attempts we make at controlling pollution will blow up in our faces the same way our previous attempts have.   


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  2. Sanjay, you are too kind. And best of luck with the water treatment processes.