The State of the Environment—an Overview

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Native American saying">

We have not inherited the Earth from our fathers. We are borrowing it from our children.

Photographs from outer space impress on the world that humankind shares one planet, and a small one at that. (See Figure 1.1.) Earth is one ecosystem. There may be differences in race, nationality, religion, and language, but everyone resides on the same orbiting planet.

General concern about the environment is a relatively recent phenomenon. It began in the United States during the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, when social activism was a major force for change. Environmentalism was truly a grassroots movement in which public outcry spurred politicians to act. The result was a flurry of government regulations aimed at cleaning up the worst excesses of industrialism. Over the following decades the environmental movement continued to wield social and political influence, but the initial zeal for aggressive action faded as Americans turned their attention to other challenges. The economy, energy, and terrorism took precedence in the public consciousness. Around the turn of the millennium, environmental activism experienced a rebirth driven by concern about a "new" threat facing the world: global warming. This latest revolution in attitudes has unleashed a fresh passion about environmental issues and promises to provide a topic of lively debate for many years to come.


The Industrial Revolution

Humankind has always altered the environment around itself. For much of human history, however, these changes were fairly limited. The world was too vast and people too few to have more than a minor effect on the environment, especially as they had only primitive tools and technology to aid them. All this began to change in the 1800s. First in Europe and then in the United States, powerful new machines, such as steam engines, were developed and put into use. These new technologies led to great increases in the amount and quality of goods that could be manufactured and the amount of food that could be harvested. As a result, the quality of life rose substantially and the population began to boom. The so-called Industrial Revolution was under way.

Even though the Industrial Revolution enabled people to live better in many ways, it also increased pollution. For many years pollution was thought to be an insignificant side effect of growth and progress. In fact, at one time people looked on the smokestacks belching black soot as a healthy sign of economic growth. The reality was that pollution, along with the increased demands for natural resources and living space that resulted from the Industrial Revolution, was beginning to have a significant effect on the environment.

The Environmental Revolution

For much of the early twentieth century Americans accepted pollution as an inevitable cost of economic progress. After World War II (19391945), however, more and more incidents involving pollution made people aware of the environmental problems caused by human activities. Los Angeles's "smog," a smoky haze of pollution that formed like a fog in the city, contributed a new word to the English language. Swimming holes became so polluted they were poisonous. Still, little action was taken.

In the 1960s environmental awareness began to increase, partly in response to the 1962 publication of a book by Rachel Carson (19071964), Silent Spring, which exposed the toll of the chemical pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) on bird populations. Other signs of the drastic effects of pollution on the environment became more difficult to ignore. For example, in 1969 the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames because of pollutants in the water.


Environmental protection rapidly became popular with the public, particularly with the younger generation. In "Environment May Eclipse Vietnam as College Issue" (New York Times, November 29, 1969), Gladwin Hill reported on the astonishing increase in environmental interest. Concern about the environmental crisis was especially strong on college campuses, where it was threatening to become even more of an issue than the Vietnam War (19541975).

factors contributing to environmental activism

factors contributing to environmental activism. What motivated Americans to this new awareness? The following are among the likely factors:

  • An affluent economy and increased leisure time
  • The emergence of an "activist" upper middle class that was college educated, affluent, concerned, and youthful
  • The rise of television, an increasingly aggressive press, and advocacy journalism (supporting specific causes)
  • An advanced scientific community with increasing funding, new technology, and vast communication capabilities

earth day and the birth of environmental protection

earth day and the birth of environmental protection. The idea for Earth Day began to evolve in the early 1960s. Nationwide "teach-ins" were being held on campuses across the country to protest the Vietnam War. The Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson (19162005) of Wisconsin, troubled by the apathy of U.S. leaders toward the environment, announced that a grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment would be held in the spring of 1970, and he invited everyone to participate. On April 22, 1970, twenty million people participated in massive rallies on U.S. campuses and in large cities. Earth Day went on to become an annual event.

With public opinion plainly obvious, in 1970 Congress and President Richard M. Nixon (19131994) passed a series of unprecedented laws to protect the environment and created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an organization devoted to setting limits on water and air pollutants and to investigating the environmental impact of proposed, federally funded projects. In the years that followed many more environmental laws were passed, setting basic rules for interaction with the environment. Most notable among these laws were the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. Table 1.1 lists these and other major environmental actions by the federal government during the 1970s and 1980s.

Many activist organizations, such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, were created to watch over and protect the environment. Virtually every state established one or more agencies charged with protecting the environment. Many universities and colleges began offering programs in environmental education. Billions of dollars were spent every year by state and federal governments for environmental protection and enhancement.

The Environmental Zeal Fades

Aggressive action led to major improvements in the state of the environment. Many of the most dangerous chemicals that once polluted the air and water were banned or their emissions into the environment greatly reduced. As the highly visible dangersbelching smokestacks and burning riverswere improved, the initial zeal for environmental activism began to fade. Emerging environmental issues, such as ozone depletion in the atmosphere, were less obvious, more difficult to comprehend, and aroused less passion.

Another factor was money. The U.S. economy was booming during the 1960s and early 1970s, when environmental activism began. By the end of the 1970s the economy was burdened with high unemployment and high inflation rates, problems that lasted well into the 1980s. Americans fearing for their jobs rallied against environmental restrictions, believing that the restrictions threatened their livelihoods. This war of attitudes came to a head in 1990, when northern spotted owls were declared a threatened species in the Pacific Northwest. Millions of acres of forestland were set aside as habitat for the species, and logging was banned on federal lands within the area. Loggers protested bitterly about the loss of jobs, an argument that won sympathy from the American public. Conservative Republicans wielded power in the federal government beginning in the 1980s


Federal environmental initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s
SOURCE: Adapted from "In the 1970s," and "In the 1980s," in Earth Day: Environmental Progress, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, April 5, 2007, (accessed June 19, 2007)
1970President Richard Nixon creates EPA with a mission to protect the environment and public health.
Congress amends the Clean Air Act to set national air quality, auto emission, and anti-pollution standards.
1971Congress restricts use of lead-based paint in residences and on cribs and toys.
1972EPA bans Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), a cancer-causing pesticide, and requires extensive review of all pesticides.
Congress passes the Clean Water Act, limiting raw sewage and other pollutants flowing into rivers, lakes, and streams.
1973EPA begins phasing out leaded gasoline.
EPA issues its first permit limiting a factory's polluted discharges into waterways.
Congress passes the Endangered Species Act.
1974Congress passes the Safe Drinking Water Act, allowing EPA to regulate the quality of public drinking water.
1975Congress establishes fuel economy standards and sets tail-pipe emission standards for cars, resulting in the introduction of catalytic converters.
1976Congress passes the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, regulating hazardous waste from its production to its disposal.
President Gerald Ford signs the Toxic Substances Control Act to reduce environmental and human health risks.
EPA begins phase-out of cancer-causing Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) production and use.
1977President Jimmy Carter signs the Clean Air Act Amendments to strengthen air quality standards and protect human health.
1978The federal government bans chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as propellants in aerosol cans because CFCs destroy the ozone layer, which protects the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation.
1979EPA demonstrates scrubber technology for removing air pollution from coal-fired power plants. This technology is widely adopted in the 1980s.
1980Congress creates Superfund to clean up hazardous waste sites. Polluters are made responsible for cleaning up the most hazardous sites.
1986Congress declares the public has a right to know when toxic chemicals are released into air, land, and water.
1987The United States signs the Montreal Protocol, pledging to phase-out production of CFCs.
1988Congress bans ocean dumping of sewage sludge and industrial waste.

with policies that favored industry growth and less government regulation of business. A political backlash developed against environmentalists, who were derisively labeled as "tree huggers" and impractical zealots.

Even though the national economy improved tremendously in the 1990s, it did not eliminate people's concerns about the potential negative effects of environmental regulations on the economy. In 1994 the newly elected Republican-controlled Congress attempted to strike down a wide variety of federal regulations, including environmental regulations that they considered overly burdensome. Bills were introduced to relax regulations established under the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Super-fund toxic-waste cleanup program, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and other environmental statutes. Much of that legislation ultimately failed to pass. However, congressional budget cuts for the agencies responsible for carrying out these acts meant that many of the laws were not strongly enforced.

The impact of environmental regulations on private property use has also played an important role in the change in attitudes. The Endangered Species Act and the wetlands provisions of the Clean Water Act spurred a grassroots private property rights movement. Many people became concerned that these acts, as well as other legislation, would allow the government to take or devalue properties without compensation. For example, if federal regulations prohibited construction on a plot of land that was protected by law, then the owner of that land often felt that the government was unfairly limiting the use of his or her property. At the very least, the owner wanted government compensation for decreasing the monetary value of the land.

Finally, there were those who felt that environmental regulation by the government, while not necessarily bad, had gone too far. Some believed that the federal government had overstepped its authority and should allow state and local governments to make their own rules on environmental issues. Similarly, some people felt that existing regulations were too strict and should be relaxed to generate economic growth.

By the 1990s many of the cheapest and easiest environmental problems to fix had already been resolved. Most of the remaining problems were so large or complicated that it was believed that tremendous amounts of money would have to be spent before even modest improvements would be seen. Despite the support of those who wanted to see further environmental improvements, such issues were competing for funds with other pressing issues such as acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), homelessness, and starvation in many parts of the world. In addition, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, environmental issues have been overshadowed by the threat of terrorism. Homeland security and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have become funding priorities.

Global WarmingA New Call for Action

During the 1990s new waves of social activism began to emerge around the world. The so-called antiglobalism or anticapitalism movement captured headlines with demonstrations, and sometimes violent riots, during meetings of the world's industrialized nations, including a summit of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Washington, in 1999. The movement presented a variety of grievances involving social, labor, and environmental issues. At the same time, public awareness was growing about an emerging environmental problem called global warming. A scientific consensus slowly developed that human-related carbon emissions (primarily from the burning of fossil fuels) were overheating the world's climate and could cause irreparable harm.

In 1997 many countries joined an international agreement brokered by the United Nations (UN) in which carbon emission limits were placed on some nations. The U.S. government refused to embrace the agreement (the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework on Climate Change), because it did not limit emissions from China and Indiatwo of the United States' biggest economic competitors. U.S. politicians feared that the agreement would place an undue economic burden on the United States.

In 2004 the movie The Day after Tomorrow dramatized the disastrous consequences of unchecked global warming. Two years later the former vice president Al Gore Jr. (1948) released the book An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do about It, which reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list. A companion documentary film was also highly successful and significantly raised public awareness about the issue. Global warming became the pet environmental cause of celebrities, and new buzzwords were created:

  • Carbon footprintthe amount of carbon emitted into the environment by a particular activity
  • Carbon offsettingreducing one's carbon footprint by taking action to reduce carbon emissions, such as planting trees (growing, healthy trees biologically soak up carbon dioxide)
  • Carbon neutrala condition in which an activity's carbon footprint is completely offset.

offsetting controversy

offsetting controversy. In 2002 the English rock band Coldplay made headlines by promising to offset the carbon footprint associated with the production of its album A Rush of Blood to the Head by paying for the planting of ten thousand mango trees in southern India. The planting was touted both as an environmental boon and a development opportunity for impoverished natives in the area to grow and sell mangoes. Carbon offsetting became the new form of environmental activism, first among the well-to-do, and then in the mainstream public. Companies and nonprofit organizations seized the opportunity to capitalize on "carbon consciousness." Travel booking companies and airlines began offering passengers the opportunity to buy offsets when they purchase their tickets. The proceeds go to offsetters, for-profit businesses or nonprofit organizations that promise to channel the money to planting trees or renewable energy projects. Major companies in this field include the CarbonNeutral Company (formerly Future Forests), Trees for the Future, Climate Care, Native Energy, and TerraPass. The nonprofit organization Conservation Fund is also involved in offsetting through its Go Zero Program.

The practice of offsetting, however, has come under intense media scrutiny. Amrit Dhillon and Toby Harnden report in "How Coldplay's Green Hopes Died in the Arid Soil of India" (Telegraph, April 29, 2006) that few of the thousands of trees planted in India by Coldplay in 2002 survived because of lack of water, fertilizer, and pesticide application. An ongoing drought further aggravated the situation. Local residents who had planned to sell the mangoes from the free trees were sorely disappointed and complained they did not receive promised money for maintenance and watering expenses. A spokesman for the rock band declined to comment on the report.

In "Can You Be Traveling Green by Buying Offsets?" (USA Today, March 2, 2007), Barbara De Lollis notes that $110 million worth of voluntary offsets were purchased in 2006, up from only $6 million in 2004. Analysts note that offsetting has become a large and unregulated industry in the United States. Poor accountability and lack of performance standards and verifiability are common complaints among critics. Other articles focus on the scientific viability of offsetting carbon emissions. The article "Do Trees Make It OK to Drive an SUV?" (Associated Press, May 28, 2007) quotes one climate researcher who complains that planting trees "makes you feel warm and fuzzy but the reality is it's not going to have a significant effect."

Some organizations devoted to social and environmental improvement are skeptical of offsetting. The columnist Adam Ma'anit, in "If You Go down to the Woods Today " (New Internationalist, no. 391, July 2006), calls offsetting "the carbon con." He complains that "offsetting doesn't pressure companies to switch from fossil fuels to renewables or encourage governments to regulate polluting companies. It doesn't stop airport runways being built, planes being flown, cars being driven or even coal-fired power plants being brought online. In fact, it encourages them to continue and expand. It feeds on the good intentions of consumers and ethical business so that the fossil-fuel industry can thrive."

Advocates of offsetting contest the argument that the practice is simply a guilt alleviator for consumers reluctant to give up their energy-guzzling ways. The article "Do Trees Make It OK to Drive an SUV?" quotes a spokes-person for the nonprofit offsetting organization, who states that "the worst thing is to do nothing."

Buying Green

Offsetting is part of a broader environmental trend called buying green, with "green" meaning environmentally friendly. This movement encompasses recycled-content and energy-saving goods, natural (as opposed to synthetic) products, organically grown foods and clothing fibers, and ecotourismvacations designed to minimize negative impact on ecologically sensitive areas. Green consumerism has both champions and critics. Advocates believe it helps to raise public awareness about environmental issues and is a good first step toward achieving social and political change. Detractors claim that consumerism in itself is bad for the environment. Alex Williams, in "Buying into the Green Movement" (New York Times, July 1, 2007), quotes environmental activists who complain that buying green has become chic and "eco-sexy" and gives the public a false sense that their purchasing decisions can solve complex environmental problems. These critics tout the traditional environmentalist viewpoint that consumption of all goods and resources should be reduced.


How Government Regulations Work

Since federal and state governments began actively protecting the environment in the 1970s, they have acted primarily by creating rulescalled regulationsthat say how Americans can affect the environment around them. To get people and organizations to comply with these regulations, the government fines, imprisons, or otherwise punishes those who violate them.

Most federal regulations are aimed at controlling the environmental practices of businesses and industries, as their behavior is much easier to monitor and control than that of individual citizens. For example, to reduce air pollution the government might regulate the lawn mower industry by not allowing it to make lawn mowers that release more than a certain amount of pollutants. This is much easier for the government than the alternative: checking how much pollution is released when an individual mows his or her lawn and punishing that person if it is too much.

Attitudes of Business toward Environmental Regulation

Environmental regulations can interfere with the way a business would otherwise operate. Regulations may force businesses to design their products differently, install special machinery in their factories, or even stop certain activities entirely. In the most extreme cases entire industries might be shut down, such as when the government determined that the chemical DDT, once widely used as a pesticide, was too hazardous to human health to be used at all.

The changes required to comply with environmental regulations almost always result in smaller profits for those companies affected by such restrictions. This is especially true for industries that extract natural resources, such as mining and logging; industries that produce a great deal of pollution, such as electrical power generation; and industries whose products are potentially hazardous, such as the chemical industry. Compliance with governmental regulations is a significant cost item for some industries.

In 2002 the U.S. Census Bureau published the results from its latest survey of manufacturing, mining, and electric utility companies on their expenses for environmental compliance. In Pollution Abatement Costs and Expenditures: 1999 (also known as PACE; November 2002,, the bureau reports that in 1999 manufacturing industries spent $5.8 billion on pollution abatement capital expenditures (such as equipment) and $11.9 billion on pollution abatement operating costs. The EPA uses data from the PACE survey to estimate the costs to society of environmental regulations. The agency decided to revamp the survey after critics complained that it did not adequately reflect the true costs incurred by industry in meeting environmental requirements. In 2005 the EPA conducted a "pretest" of the new PACE survey on eighteen facilities within various industry sectors. The facilities were quizzed about their capital (building and installation) costs and operating costs for environmental compliance in 2004. As shown in Table 1.2, the facilities reported that the cost of treatment made up more than half (57%) of total operating costs in 2004. Disposal, recycling, and pollution prevention costs made up smaller percentages of total operating costs. Table 1.3 shows the distribution of operating costs by media (air, water, solids, or multimedia). Operating costs were slightly higher for controlling air emissions (37% of total) than for water discharges (31%), solids (29%), and multimedia pollutants (2%).

does environmental protection destroy jobs?

does environmental protection destroy jobs? By the end of the twentieth century the large-scale layoffs that some businesspeople predicted would result from environmental protection had not materialized. Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute, in State of the World, 2000 (Lester Russell Brown, 2000), states that job loss as a result of environmental regulation has been relatively limited. According to Renner, at least as many people have gained jobs, because of the restrictions, as have lost them. He points out that environmental regulations have led to the creation of an entirely new industry that earns its profits by assisting other businesses with compliance, mostly by helping them to minimize pollution.

Even for those who accept this positive view of the overall effects of environmental regulation on business, it is unquestionable that some industries and their workers are badly hurt by environmental regulations. Renner contends that policy changes intended to protect the environment must have a clear and predetermined schedule. This


Distribution of operating costs incurred by surveyed industries for pollution control, by activity, 2004
SectorTreatmentRecyclingDisposalPollution prevention
*Other includes furniture, petroleum, and plastics facilities.
Note: Sectors may not sum to 100 percent due to rounding.
SOURCE: "Table 3-5. Share of Operating Costs by Activity Category," in Redesign of the Pollution Abatement Costs and Expenditures (PACE) Survey: Findings and Recommendations from the Pretest and Follow-up Visits: Final Report, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, December 2006,$File/EE-0498-01.pdf (accessed June 19, 2007)
Computer and electrical equipment40%38%15%8%
Electric utility44%7%48%1%
Fab metal84%4%12%1%
Iron and steel57%6%2%35%
Average for all facilities57%11%22%10%


Distribution of operating costs incurred by surveyed industries for pollution control, by media, 2004
SectorAir emissionsWater dischargesSolidsMultimedia pollutants
*Other includes furniture, petroleum, and plastics facilities.
Note: Sectors may not sum to 100 percent due to rounding.
SOURCE: "Table 3-6. Distribution of Operating Costs by Media," in Redesign of the Pollution Abatement Costs and Expenditures (PACE) Survey: Findings and Recommendations from the Pretest and Follow-up Visits: Final Report, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, December 2006,$File/EE-0498-01.pdf (accessed June 19, 2007)
Computer and electrical equipment43%44%13%2%
Electric utility42%3%55%0%
Fab metal22%55%24%0%
Iron and steel41%32%25%2%
Average for all facilities37%31%29%2%

way workers will know in advance what is expected of them, what jobs will be in demand, and what training is needed to get them into those positions. When environmental regulation results in shrinking profits and loss of jobs, however, attempts to expand such regulation will certainly be met with opposition from those whose livelihood would be affected.

The Business of Environmental Protection

For the United States and other nations to meet their environmental goals, an environmental protection industry has emerged. Its major activities include pollution control, waste management, cleanup of contaminated sites, pollution prevention, and recycling.

Environmental Business International (EBI) is a private organization that offers business and market information to the environmental industry. According to the EBI, the industry was driven by major legislation during the 1970s and 1980s. Over the following decades economic growth and adaptation of ISO standards were important factors driving the market; ISO standards are voluntary standards developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). They were adopted by many industries during the 1990s as a means of showing compliance with certain levels of environmental conduct. The environmental industry is in a transition phase. In the past this industry focused on remedial cleanup; in the future it expects to focus more on prevention.

The EBI reports in "U.S. Environmental Industry Data 2006" (2007, that the U.S. environmental industry was a $264.6 billion business in 2005. Revenues were generated by both private and public entities. Solid waste management was the most expensive service ($47.8 billion), followed by wastewater treatment works ($35.6 billion) and water utilities ($35.1 billion).


The courts have been an important forum for developing environmental policy, because they allow citizens to challenge complex environmental laws and to affect the decision-making process. Both supporters and opponents of environmental protection have successfully used the courts to change environmental policy and law. Successful challenges can force the legislature to change laws or even have the law suspended as unconstitutional. A lawsuit can also be filed to seek compensation for harm to a person, property, or economic interest. Sometimes, lawsuits have prompted the creation of entirely new laws, such as the federal Superfund Law (1980) and the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976). Even the threat of a lawsuit, given the bad publicity it can bring, is sometimes enough to get a business or the government to change its behavior.

There are many different situations under which an individual or organization can go to court over environmental laws and regulations. One common occurrence is for an individual or group to sue the government to block a law or regulation from going into effect. For example, when the government halted logging in northwestern forests because of threats to endangered owls, logging companies fought to halt enforcement of those protections because that would decrease the industry's income and cause the loss of jobs.

Some lawsuits are filed not to block an environmental law or regulation from going into effect but because the claimants feel that the government owes them compensation for the negative effects of the law. In 1986 David Lucas bought two residential lots on a South Carolina barrier island. He planned to build houses on these lots, just as had been done on other nearby lots. At the time he bought the land this was entirely legal, but in 1988 South Carolina passed the Beachfront Management Act. Designed to protect the state's beaches from erosion, it prohibited new construction on land in danger of eroding, which included the land Lucas owned.

Lucas went to court claiming that the Beachfront Management Act had violated the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by preventing him from building on his property. The Fifth Amendment states, among other things, that "private property shall not be taken for a public use, without just compensation." Lucas argued that preventing him from building on his property was equivalent to taking it, so the government of South Carolina had to compensate him for it. On June 29, 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (505 U.S. 1003), agreed with Lucas in a 72 decision, and South Carolina was ordered to compensate him.

Supporters of environmental protection have also filed lawsuits. These situations generally occur when people feel the government is not properly enforcing the law. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have sued the government on many occasions to compel it to officially recognize certain species as endangered.


The so-called environmental justice issue stems from concerns that poor people and racial minorities are disproportionately subject to environmental hazards. The EPA defines environmental justice as "fair treatment for people of all races, cultures, and incomes, regarding the development of environmental laws, regulations, and policies" (August 1, 2007,

Examples of environmental injustice include the following claims:

  • Low-income Americans, especially minorities, may be more likely than other groups to live near landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste facilities.
  • Low-income and African-American children often have higher than normal levels of lead in their blood.
  • Greater proportions of Hispanics and African-Americans than whites live in communities that fail to meet air quality standards.
  • Higher percentages of hired farm workers in the United States are minorities that may experience pesticide-related illnesses as a result of their work.
  • Low-income and minority fishermen who use fish as their sole source of protein are generally not well informed about the risk of eating contaminated fish from certain lakes, rivers, and streams.

The Impetus behind the Movement

The environmental justice movement gained national attention in 1982 with a demonstration against the construction of a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, a county with a predominantly African-American population. A resulting 1983 congressional studythe Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities (June 1, 1983, that, for three out of four landfills surveyed, African-Americans made up most of the population living nearby and that at least 26% of the population in those communities was below the poverty level. In 1987 the United Church of Christ published the nationwide study Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, reporting that race was the most significant factor among the variables tested in determining locations of hazardous waste facilities.

In 1992 the EPA report Environmental Equity: Reducing Risk for All Communities (June 1992, concluded that racial minorities and low-income people bore a disproportionate burden of environmental risk. These groups were exposed to lead, air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, contaminated fish, and agricultural pesticides in far greater frequencies than the general population.

That same year the EPA established the Office of Environmental Justice to address environmental impacts affecting minority and low-income communities. In 1994 President Bill Clinton (1946) issued Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations (February 11, 1994,, requiring federal agencies to develop a comprehensive strategy for including environmental justice in their decision making.

Recent Reports and Incidents

us commission on civil rights

u.s. commission on civil rights. In 2003 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) published the report Not in My Backyard: Executive Order 12,898 and Title VI as Tools for Achieving Environmental Justice (October 2003, The report examines the level to which various government agencies, including the EPA, have implemented Executive Order 12898 and Title VI (the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

Agency performance is based on four major criteria:

  • Collecting data on the health and environmental impacts of agency activities on "communities of color and low-income populations"
  • Incorporating the principles of environmental justice into agency policies, programs, and activities
  • Allowing "affected communities" to participate in environmental decision-making processes
  • Granting "affected communities" access to scientific data and information related to the enforcement of Title VI and Executive Order 12898

The report concludes that the EPA has experienced "limited success" in implementing the principles of environmental justice, but that "significant problems and shortcomings" still exist. A lack of commitment from agency leaders is cited as a major problem.

Only four of the USCCR's eight commissioners signed the report. The other four refused to sign, noting in an attached letter that they believed the report was "based upon a misguided application of federal antidiscrimination law to complex environmental and public health problems." The dissenting commissioners acknowledged that there are legitimate concerns about the health of people living near "environmental hazards." They prefer that these issues be addressed under environmental laws, rather than under civil rights laws. They complain that "environmental justice activists seek to create a federal civil rights claim every time an environmental or public health problem affects minorities.'

citizens against pollution

citizens against pollution. In 2004 a federal lawsuit against the chemical company Monsanto was settled for $300 million. The suit was spearheaded by a grassroots environmental group out of Anniston, Alabama, called Citizens against Pollution. It was brought on behalf of 18,477 residents living in poor, mostly African-American neighborhoods in the city's west end. The suit alleged that since the 1960s a Monsanto plant had discharged large amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into a creek running through the area. PCBs are mixtures of synthetic organic chemicals that are now known to be extremely persistent in the environment and toxic to life. Lawyers had evidence linking PCB exposure to a variety of serious illnesses and even deaths suffered by members of the community over decades.

Without admitting fault, Monsanto agreed to pay $300 million to settle the case. According to Ellen Barry, in "A Neighborhood of Poisoned Dreams" (Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2004), the plaintiffs, who were originally thrilled with the settlement, were shocked when they learned the lawyers would receive $120 million of the money. This left $180 million to be split among thousands of plaintiffs, resulting in an average payout of only $7,725 per person. A case brought by a different set of plaintiffs in state court resulted in a settlement of $300 million to be split among twenty-five hundred plaintiffs. An additional $75 million was earmarked toward cleanup efforts, and $25 million was set aside to build a neighborhood health clinic. In total the lawsuits resulted in a settlement of nearly $700 million, the largest payout ever in a tort case (a civil action resulting from a wrongful act) involving toxic chemicals.

the cheers controversy

the cheers controversy. In 2005 the EPA was forced to cancel a planned pesticide study after the media accused the agency of targeting low-income minority children as test subjects. The Children's Health Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS) was supposed to collect data on children's exposure to household pesticides and chemicals. The study called for the monitoring of sixty young children (aged three and younger) in and around Jacksonville, Florida, with the help of the county health department. According to the EPA, volunteering families were to do the following things over a two-year period:

  • Keep records of their normal pesticide usage
  • Maintain an activity diary for their child and videotape some of the child's everyday activities with a supplied video recorder
  • Collect food and urine samples
  • Put a small sensor badge on their child for several weeks
  • Allow periodic visits by EPA researchers to collect data

The EPA instructions for families noted that they were to follow their normal pesticide application routine


Major federal environmental and wildlife protection acts
SOURCE: Adapted from "Major Environmental Laws," in Guide to Environmental Issues, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, June 26, 1998, (accessed July 19, 2007)
Environmental protection acts
Clean Air Act (CAA)Prevent the deterioration of air quality
Clean Water Act (CWA)Regulate sources of water pollution
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability (CERCLA or Superfund)Address problems of abandoned hazardous waste sites
Emergency Planning & Community Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA)Help local communities protect public health, safety, and the environment from chemical hazards
Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)Control pesticide distribution, sale, and use
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)The basic national charter for protection of the environment. It establishes policy, sets goals, and provides means for carrying out the policy.
Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA)Prevent and respond to catastrophic oil spills
Pollution Prevention Act (PPA)Reduce the amount of pollution produced via recycling, source reduction, and sustainable agriculture
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)Protect human health and the environment from dangers associated with waste management
Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)Protect the quality of drinking water
Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)Test, regulate, and screen all chemicals produced in or imported into the U.S.
Wildlife protection acts
Bald and Gold Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA)Provide a program for the conservation of bald and golden eagles
Endangered Species Act (ESA)Conserve the various species of fish, wild life, and plants facing extinction
Lacey ActControl the trade of exotic fish, wildlife, and plants
Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA)Protect migratory birds during their nesting season

and were not being asked to apply new or different pesticides in their homes. Besides the video camera, each family was to receive cash compensation for their time.

The EPA began publicizing the CHEERS study and asking for families to volunteer to participate in the fall of 2004. The issue became a public relations nightmare for the agency. Media stories pointed out that the study area contained many low-income minority neighborhoods. Critics accused the EPA of enticing poor families to expose their children to pesticides in return for cash and video cameras. Part of the funding for the study was to come from the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing chemical manufacturers. This also aroused criticism about the intent of the study.

The issue became highly politicized in March 2005, when confirmation hearings began for Stephen L. Johnson (1951), the Bush administration's choice to head the agency. Some Senate Democrats threatened to block Johnson's confirmation unless the study was canceled. The EPA insisted that the study objectives were being distorted by the media and for political reasons. However, in April 2005 the EPA canceled the CHEERS study.

toxic waste and race at twenty, 19872007

toxic waste and race at twenty, 19872007. Robert D. Bullard et Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty, 19872007: Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States (March 2007,, a report that was prepared for the United Church of Christ and that relies on population and demographic data from the 2000 census and a database of commercial hazardous waste facilitiesfind that:

  • Racial minorities make up the majority (56%) of the population in neighborhoods within nearly two miles of U.S. hazardous waste facilities.
  • The 5.1 million Americans of color who live in neighborhoods containing one or more commercial hazardous waste facilities include 2.5 million Hispanics, 1.8 million African-Americans, and 616,000 people of other races or ethnic backgrounds.
  • The poverty rates in neighborhoods hosting commercial hazardous waste facilities are 1.5 times greater than the rates in non-host neighborhoods.

Bullard et al. conclude that the evidence supporting environmental racism is strong, noting that "race continues to be an independent predictor of where hazardous wastes are located, and it is a stronger predictor than income, education and other socioeconomic indicators."


Table 1.4 lists the major environmental and wildlife protection acts of the federal government. As recently as the 1980s few Americans understood that harming the environment could be considered a crime. Since that time, however, a substantial portion of the American public has begun to recognize the seriousness of environmental offenses, believing that damaging the environment is a serious crime and that corporate officials should be held responsible for offenses committed by their firms. Even though the immediate consequences of an offense may not be obvious or severe, environmental crime is a serious problem and does have victims; the cumulative costs in damage to the environment and the toll to humans in illness, injury, and death can be considerable.

Law enforcement agencies generally believe that successful criminal prosecutioneven the threat of itis the best deterrent to environmental crime. Under the dual sovereignty doctrine, both state and federal governments can independently prosecute environmental crimes without violating the double jeopardy or due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

As attitudes toward environmental crimes have changed, the penalties for such offenses have become harsher. Federal criminal enforcement has grown from a misdemeanor penalty for dumping contaminants into waterways without a permit to a felony for clandestine (secret) dumping. Several federal laws now include criminal penalties. Companies, their officials, and staff can be prosecuted for knowingly violating any one of a number of crimes. Such crimes include transporting hazardous waste to an unlicensed facility, storing and disposing of hazardous waste without a permit, failing to notify of a hazardous substance release, falsifying documents, dumping into a wetland, and violating air quality standards.

Figure 1.2 shows the numbers of criminal investigations conducted by the EPA Criminal Enforcement Program for the fiscal years 2002 to 2006 and the number of defendants charged with environmental crimes. In 2006, 305 investigations took place and 278 defendants were charged with crimes. Convicted defendants received 154 years of incarceration during 2006 and paid $43 million in fines and restitution. (See Figure 1.3.)

Since the 1970s environmental laws have become more complicated. The increasing strictness of these laws may have contributed to the growing incidence of environmental violations. First, many businesses have found


compliance increasingly expensive, and many are simply avoiding the costs even if it means violating the law. These companies consider the penalties just another "cost of doing business." Second, businesses and their legal counsel are becoming increasingly savvy in avoiding prosecution through the use of dummy corporations, intermediaries, and procedural techniques.

Smuggling and black-market sales of banned hazardous substances also resulted from environmental legislation. In 1997 federal officials reported that the sale of contraband Freon (a refrigerant used in air conditioning systems) had become more profitable than the sale of cocaine at that time. Freon is one of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a class of chemicals known to cause ozone depletion in the atmosphere. In Mexico, which shares a two-thousand-mile border with the United States, Freon is still legal to manufacture and export, but these activities are banned in the United States. Freon, however, continues to exist in the cooling systems of many older model cars in the United States, which means a demand also exists.

Another type of environmental crime gaining attention, called ecoterrorism, occurs when radical environmental groups use economic sabotage to stop what they see as threats to the environment. According to James F. Jarboe of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in "The Threat of Eco-Terrorism" (February 12, 2002,, the Earth Liberation Front (and the related Animal Liberation Front) are


blamed for more than six hundred attacks and nearly $43 million in property damage since the late 1990s. The group is accused of setting fire to a genetics laboratory, uprooting experimental crops, and damaging buildings. The FBI has named the Earth Liberation Front one of the most dangerous domestic terrorist groups in the United States.


Environmental issues have never been neatly bound by national borders. Activities taking place in one country often affect the environment of other countries, if not that of the entire planet. In fact, many of the most important aspects of environmental protection involve areas that are not located within any particular country, such as the oceans, or that belong to no one, such as the atmosphere. In an attempt to deal with these issues, the international community has held a number of conferences and developed many declarations, agreements, and treaties. The major ones are listed in Table 1.5.

A First Major Step: The Stockholm Conference

In 1972 the UN met in Stockholm, Sweden, for a conference on the environment. Delegates from 113 countries gathered, with each reporting the state of his or her nation's environmentforests, water, farmland, and other natural resources. The countries represented


Major international conventions, treaties, and declarations related to the environment
SOURCE: Created by Kim Masters Evans for Thomson Gale, 2007
International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946)
The Antarctic Treaty (1959)
Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar, Iran, 1971)
United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972)
The Stockholm Declaration (1972)
London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (1972)
International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL, 1973/1978)
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, 1974)
Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (1979)
The Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (1985)
The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987)
The Basel Convention on the Movement of Transboundary Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (1989)
Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo, Finland, 1991)
United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, 1992)
The Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992)
The Kyoto Protocol (1997)
The Convention on Biological Diversity (1992)
Agenda 21 (1992)
The Rio Declaration (1992)
Statement on Forest Principles (1992)
The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedures for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (1998)
The Stockholm Convention on Priority Organic Pollutants (2001)

essentially fell into two groups. The industrialized countries were primarily concerned about how to protect the environment by preventing pollution and overpopulation and conserving natural resources. The less developed nations were more concerned about problems of widespread hunger, disease, and poverty that they all faced. They did consider the environment important, however, and were willing to protect it as long as doing so did not have a major negative economic impact on their citizens.

By the end of the two-week meeting, the delegates had agreed that the human environment had to be protected, even as industrialization proceeded in the less developed countries. They established the UN Environment Program (UNEP), which included Earthwatch, a program to monitor changes in the physical and biological resources of the Earth. The most important outcome of the conference was awareness of Earth's ecology as a whole. For the first time in global history, the environmental problems of both rich and poor nations were put in perspective. General agreement emerged to protect natural resources, encourage family planning and population control, and protect against the negative effects of industrialization.

Some Difficulties Facing International Environmental Protection

Since the 1972 conference, hundreds of environmental treaties have been signed. From this, one might assume that great progress has been made, but this is not truly the case. Most experts believe that international cooperation is not keeping pace with the world's ever-growing interdependence and the rapidly deteriorating condition of much of the environment. Carbon dioxide levels are at record highs, water shortages exist around the world, fisheries are becoming depleted, and many scientists are warning that large numbers of species are becoming extinct. The reason for this is that, even though nations agree on the fact that the environment must be safeguarded, they disagree sharply on the issue of what role each nation should play in protecting it.

Less developed nations are generally unwilling to alter their laws and economy to end environmentally destructive ways, because a shift to environmentally friendly practices would be too expensive, they claim, for their economies to handle. Yet, the richer, industrialized nations generally refuse to alter their own behavior unless the less developed nations do so as well. Their reason is not so much the cost of change rather than believing it unfair that the less developed nations want them to carry most of the burden of environmental protection.

The less developed nations respond by pointing out that the industrialized nations became rich with the very same practices they now want the less developed nations to stop using. They claim it is unfair to be expected to limit their economic development in ways that the industrialized nations themselves never would have done.

This is a difficult disagreement but not an impossible one to resolve. When both sides are willing to compromise, agreements can be reached. These compromises usually require the industrialized nations to make bigger changes in their behavior and to help the less developed nations change without too negative an impact on their economies.

Even agreements such as these face many obstacles. Environmental agreements seldom include a means of enforcement but rely instead on each signing country to keep its word. Faced with the actual, immediate costs of implementing environmental agreements, many countries eventually back down from their commitments. U.S. representatives have signed many international agreements. However, U.S. participation is not officially authorized unless and until these agreements are ratified by the U.S. Senate. As a result, in 2007 the United States was a signatory party on many international agreements but was not yet abiding by some of them. Most international treaties related to the environment are set up so that the requirements do not become binding until a specified minimum number of parties (countries) have ratified the agreements.

1992 earth summit

1992 earth summit. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is an example of a conference where compromises were made and agreements reached but little change actually resulted. Mounting global concern for the environment prompted the UN to convene the summit meeting. Approximately 180 governments participated, making it one of the largest and most important environmental summits ever. As with prior environmental summits, the conference was split between industrialized and developing nations.

The main accomplishments of the Earth Summit were pacts on global warming and biodiversity. President George H. W. Bush (1924) attended the summit and, while there, signed the global warming treaty for the United States. President Clinton signed the biodiversity treaty in 1993. These agreements came about largely because the industrialized nations also agreed to commit 0.7% of their gross national products (the total value of goods and services produced by a country over a particular period of time) by 2000 to assist developing countries with compliance.

Problems arose soon after the summit ended. Participating countries submitted annual reports to the fifty-three-nation UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), a standing body that was set up to implement the Rio agreements. The CSD concluded in 1994 that most countries were failing to provide the money and expertise necessary to implement the plans set at Rio. According to Pamela Chasek and Langston James (Kimo) Goree VI, in "Commission on Sustainable Development: Year-End Update" (Earth Negotiations Bulletin, December 16, 1994), Klaus Toepfer of Germany, the chairman of the CSD, reported that the world's efforts to finance the goals had fallen "significantly short of expectations and requirements and could undermine the basis of the global partnership for sustainable development."

By 1996 a number of national governments, including the United States, had prepared plans for environmental protection and submitted them to the CSD. Hundreds of municipalities had also written plans of action. The CSD once again found, however, that other issues had crowded out environmental concerns. As developed and less developed nations alike worried about the potential effects of implementing the Rio agreements, they found reasons to delay implementation and reduce funding for those programs that had been implemented.

world trade organization

world trade organization. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an international organization whose purpose is to encourage free trade between its members. Most of the world's nations are members. Even though the WTO was officially founded in 1995, it is the result of decades of international cooperation under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The WTO continues to administer the free trade system established under GATT.

One of the primary missions of the WTO is to eliminate barriers to free trade. Doing so can have a negative effect on environmental protection, however, because laws designed to protect the environment often have the effect of restricting trade. If the WTO finds that a member nation is restricting trade in violation of GATT, other members are permitted to raise their tariffs (import taxes) on goods from that nation until the barriers to trade are eliminated. Most of the time nations quickly change their laws to eliminate barriers to trade, rather than suffer high taxes.

Because it has forced many environmental laws to be weakened over the years, the WTO is greatly disliked by many environmentalists in the United States. Also, there are groups that think the organization's power over internal U.S. affairs is too great. When the WTO met in Seattle, Washington, in 1999, tens of thousands of activists, including environmental activists, protested in the city. This massive protest succeeded in overshadowing the WTO meeting itself and drew public attention to the problemsenvironmental and otherwisewith free trade organizations. This was due in no small part to the violent rioting and property damage caused by some protesters.

Americans are not the only ones who take issue with some of the WTO's actions regarding the environment. For example, Europeans opposed to genetically modifying food, a procedure in widespread use in the United States by 2002, wanted restrictions placed on the sale of U.S. food in Europe, but such restrictions would violate GATT and invite retaliation by the United States.

north american free trade agreement

north american free trade agreement. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was signed in 1994, is another major free trade agreement with the potential to negatively impact environmental protection in the United States. Members of NAFTA include the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and the purpose of the agreement is to eliminate trade barrierssuch as most tariffs, investment restrictions, and import quotasbetween these three countries. Even though its scope is much smaller than the WTO, NAFTA has an even greater impact on the three member countries than GATT.

A significant difference between NAFTA and GATT is that NAFTA is the first treaty of its kind ever to be accompanied by an environmental protection agreement. To discourage countries from weakening environmental standards in the name of increasing foreign trade, the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC). Under the NAAEC (1993,, a member country can be challenged if it or one of its states fails to enforce its environmental laws. A challenge can be brought by one of the member nations, or any interested party (such as an environmental protection group) can petition the NAAEC commission. If the commission finds a member country is showing a "persistent pattern of failure to effectively enforce its environmental law," that country may be fined. If the fines are not paid, the other members are permitted to suspend NAFTA benefits in an amount not exceeding the amount of the assessed fine.

Even with the NAAEC, some U.S. environmentalists and state officials feared that NAFTA could result in the weakening of many humane laws and the reversal of thirty years of advances in animal protection and environmental cleanup. In response, Congress provided more protection for state laws and included more environmental language than in any previous trade agreement. The implementing legislation for NAFTA in the United States allows states much input and requires that they receive notification of actions that may affect them. In addition, during NAFTA discussions, the Border Environment Cooperation Commission and the North American Development Bank were created. Independent of NAFTA itself, these agencies are intended to ensure that policy discussions are open and fairly enforced, to consider allegations that a country is not enforcing environmental laws, to help communities finance environmental infrastructures, and to resolve disputes, particularly those that cross borders.

Despite all these measures designed to make sure that NAFTA does not trample on environmental protection, environmentalists still see the need for concern. They point out that U.S. laws designed to protect certain animals could be challenged as barriers to free trade under NAFTA. They also point to the increased pollution in Mexico and along its border with the United States that has resulted from the increase in trade between these two countries.


Quality of the Environment

In March 2007 the Gallup Organization conducted its annual poll regarding environmental issues. As shown in Figure 1.4, participants were asked to rate the overall quality of the U.S. environment as excellent, good, only fair, or poor. Only 5% of those asked gave the environment an excellent rating. Another 35% rated the environment in good condition, whereas 48% considered it in fair condition and 11% rated it in poor condition. This breakdown is similar to that obtained in polls dating back to 2001.

Another question from Gallup's 2007 Environment poll ( asked if people believed the quality of the environment ¼ as a whole was getting better, getting worse, or staying the same. In 2007 a majority of respondents (67%) expressed the pessimistic view that the environment is getting worse. Another 25% believed that the environment is improving, and 7% thought it is about the same. This breakdown has remained relatively constant since the question was first asked in 2001.

Grading the Environmental Movement

As part of its 2007 poll, Gallup asked people to rate the overall performance of the environmental movement.



As shown in Figure 1.5, a majority of those asked (66%) felt that the movement had done more good than harm, whereas 31% thought it had done more harm than good.

Environmental Protection Efforts

In Environment, Gallup reports that in 2005 it also asked poll participants to rate their level of trust in the ability of various entities to protect the quality of the nation's environment. These entities are listed below along with the percentage of respondents expressing a "great deal" of trust in them.

  • Local environmental organizations (26%)
  • National environmental organizations (25%)
  • Federal environmental agencies, such as the EPA (22%)
  • State environmental agencies (16%)
  • Small businesses (15%)
  • The Democratic Party (15%)
  • Local government agencies (11%)
  • The U.S. Congress (11%)
  • The Republican Party (9%)
  • Large corporations (7%)

Personal Participation

In its 2007 poll Gallup asked participants to rate their level of personal participation in the environmental movement. As shown in Figure 1.6, only 21% of those asked considered themselves active participants in the environmental movement. Far more (49%) were sympathetic to the movement but not active. Another 23% expressed neutral feelings about it, and 5% were unsympathetic. Overall, the percentage of people describing themselves as active participants was up slightly in 2007 from a range of 14% to 19% recorded in polls conducted between 2000 and 2006.

Americans were generally positive about their personal performance in protecting the environment. More than half (52%) said they were doing a "good" job at protecting the environment, whereas 7% rated their personal performance as "excellent." Slightly more than a third (34%) gave themselves an "only fair" rating, and 5% said their personal role was "poor."

Competing Interests: Environment, Energy, and Economy

For many years the Gallup Organization has polled people about which should take priority: the environment or economic growth. The vast majority of polls conducted between 1984 and 2000 showed strong support for the environment, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. In all these polls at least 58% of the people asked agreed with this view. The tide began to turn during the early 2000s as economic growth became a higher priority.

The March 2007 poll showed that 55% of those asked believed that environmental protection should be given priority, even if it risked curbing economic growth. More than one-third (37%) felt that economic growth should be given priority, even if it meant that the environment would suffer to some extent. According to Gallup, a small percentage (4%) advocated giving equal priority to environmental protection and economic growth.

The percentage breakdown was similar for a poll question regarding the development of U.S. energy supplies versus environmental protection. Gallup found in 2007 that 58% of respondents felt that protection of the environment should have priority, even if it might limit the amount of energy supplies, such as oil, coal, and gas, that the nation could produce. Another 34% of people thought that development of energy supplies should have priority over the environment. A small percentage (3%) indicated that the two should have equal priority. Likewise, a small percentage (2%) said that neither should be given priority.


Americans Rate Their Priorities and Concerns

In "Iraq Still Tops Policy Agenda, but Immigration, Gas Prices Gain" (June 1, 2007,, Lydia Saad of the Gallup Organization reports on ¼ a May 2007 poll, in which participants were asked to name one or two issues they believed should be the top priorities for the president and Congress. The results revealed that the environment and pollution ranked seventhonthe list and was cited by only 4%of respondents. This gave it lower priority than the war in Iraq (69%), immigration and illegal aliens (24%), energy sources and prices (17%), and the economy (16%); it was equal in priority to education (4%) and terrorism (4%).

In Gallup's 2007 environmental poll, participants were asked to rate various environmental issues in regard to the amount of concern they feel about them: a great deal, a fair amount, a little, or none. Pollsters found that the pollution of drinking water had the highest percentage of respondents expressing a great deal of concern. (See Table 1.6.) It topped the list with 58%, followed by pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs with 53%, and contamination of soil


Public opinion on environmental problems, March 2007
[Based on the percentage saying they worry a "great deal" about each problem]
SOURCE: Joseph Carroll, "Environmental Worries," in Polluted Drinking Water Is Public's Top Environmental Concern, The Gallup Organization, April 20, 2007, (accessed June 19, 2007). Copyright © 2007 by The Gallup Organization. Reproduced by permission of The Gallup Organization.
Pollution of drinking water58
Pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs53
Contamination of soil and water by toxic waste52
Maintenance of the nation's supply of fresh water for household needs51
Air pollution46
Damage to the earth's ozone layer43
The loss of tropical rain forests43
The "greenhouse effect" or global warming41
Extinction of plant and animal species39
Acid rain25

and water by toxic waste with 52%. In general, water-related issues garnered the most amount of concern.

In the same poll respondents were asked to indicate whether they favored or opposed some specific environmental and energy proposals. As shown in Table 1.7, Americans showed the highest level of support for spending government funds on the development of alternate fuel sources for automobiles. This proposal was favored by 86% of those asked. Higher emissions and pollution standards for business and industry were supported by 84% of respondents. Other proposals garnering greater than 80% approval were more strongly enforcing federal environmental regulations (82%) and spending more government money on the development of solar and wind power (81%).

How Reliable Are Polls on Environmental Issues?

Some experts suggest that opinion polls are an unreliable guide to how voters actually feel about environmental


Public opinion on specific environmental proposals, March 2007
[In random order]
Percentage expressing opinion:FavorOpposeNo opinion
SOURCE: Adapted from "Next, here are some things that can be done to deal with the energy situation. For each one, please say whether you generally favor or oppose it. How about," in Environment, The Gallup Organization, 2007, (accessed June 19, 2007). Copyright © 2007 by The Gallup Organization. Reproduced by permission of The Gallup Organization.
Spending government money to develop alternate sources of fuel for automobiles86121
Setting higher emissions and pollution standards for business and industry84151
More strongly enforcing federal environmental regulations82153
Spending more government money on developing solar and wind power81171
Setting higher auto emissions standards for automobiles79182
Imposing mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases79192
Expanding the use of nuclear energy50464
Opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil exploration41572

issues. Even though polls of Americans indicate that concern for environmental issues is substantial, this same level of concern does not manifest itself when it comes to actual voting and purchasing decisions. Some observers suggest that people often claim in polls that they are interested in environmental issues because they are trying to give the pollster the answer that he or she wants to hear. In other words, they are giving what they think is the "right" answer. In actuality, respondents may be more interested in other issues and, in the voting booth, may vote other than their poll answers would indicate.


Teaching about the Environment in Schools

Many states require schools to incorporate environmental concepts, such as ecology, conservation, and environmental law, into many subjects at all grade levels. Some even require special training in environmentalism for teachers. According to Environmental Education Grants Program: Grants Awarded 19922006 (2007,, the EPA indicates that it has given grants to nearly thirty-two hundred such projects at a cost of more than $40 million. Figure 1.7 shows the breakdown of the type of organizations that received the grants. More than half (51.3%) of the grant recipients were nonprofit organizations. Figure 1.8 indicates the environmental issues addressed by the grants. The highest percentages were devoted to general environmental literacy (37.4%), water (32.4%), and issues of biodiversity, ecosystems, habitat, and species (26.8%).

Even though the mandating of environmental education pleases environmentalists, and studies show that most Americans support environmental education, some people still have concerns. Critics claim that most environmental education in the schools is based on flawed information, biased presentations, and questionable objectives. Critics also say it leads to brainwashing and


pushing a regulatory mind-set on students. Some critics contend that, at worst, impressionable children are being trained to believe that the environment is in immediate danger of catastrophe because of consumption, economic growth, and free-market capitalism.

Lacking Basic Knowledge

In Environmental Literacy in America (September 2005,, Kevin Coyle of the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (now the National Environmental Education Foundation) summarizes findings on the depth of knowledge of environmental issues by American students and adults based on polls and studies.

Coyle notes, "At a time when Americans are confronted with increasingly challenging environmental choices, we learn that our citizenry is by and large both uninformed and misinformed." Some common misconceptions mentioned by Coyle are:

  • 45 million Americans believe that the oceans are a source of freshwater.
  • 120 million Americans believe that spray cans contain CFCs, even though CFCs were banned in the 1970s.


  • 120 million Americans believe that disposable diapers are the major problem at municipal solid waste landfills. In reality, they make up only approximately 1% of the problem.

Coyle finds that media sources, such as television and newspapers, are the primary source of environmental information for both children and adults. According to Coyle, the media's influence is powerful, even though most media outlets provide "superficial information." The public's reliance on the media for environmental education is blamed for the persistence of commonly held but mistaken beliefs that Coyle calls environmental myths.

Coyle estimates that 80% of Americans believe in incorrect and outdated environmental myths. Less that one-third (32%) demonstrated "basic awareness" of environmental topics as evidenced by their performance on basic quizzes. Even though Coyle notes that Americans' poor level of environmental literacy is "worrisome," he is heartened by survey data showing that more than three-quarters of Americans support greater governmental and business efforts to fund and present environmental education.

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The State of the Environment—an Overview

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