Legacy Effects Research Paper

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Legacy effects are the impacts that one generation leave on the environment for future generations to inherit. There are very few parts of the globe where human beings have not  left their imprint  or legacy. Archeological evidence suggests that  from  the  earliest times  the  human,  the hunter, was responsible for the extermination of numerous other forms of life—flora and fauna—a pattern that persists today.  The  early civilizations changed  watercourses, initiated  farming, and  denuded  landscapes of many species of trees and shrubs; the barren lands of the eastern Mediterranean, for example, are largely a legacy of the  classical period  of ancient  Greece. The  advent of industrialization and  mass production  has resulted not only in further damage to the natural landscape as massive resource  depletions  take  place,  but  also  legacies of unsightly built environments.

Legacy effects are not all negative, at least in terms of public perception. Although the classical period saw the destruction of woodlands, it did leave a legacy of fine buildings that are seen by most as environmental attributes. The dividing line between what is a negative legacy effect on the environment and what is not is sometimes a fine one to draw and depends on who is being consulted.

Legacy effects occur because of the lack of a full allocation of long-term property rights to resources, which leads to excessive myopia in decision making. The 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report),  emphasizes that  sustainable development requires current generations to leave an adequate legacy of resources for future generations. To achieve this goal, individuals have to take responsibility for resources. Without a complete legal definition of who owns these resources, however, it is difficult to ensure that adequate conservation is achieved. If this is not accomplished, then what is known as the “tragedy of the commons” becomes apparent as individuals in each generation excessively exploit resources with no regard to future needs or the implications for future generations.

Dealing with legacy effects poses a variety of public policy challenges. Ideally, property rights should be allocated across generations so that decisions regarding current consumption are made with due cognizance of their implications for future generations. Because the lack of adequate property-rights allocations in the past has burdened current generations with environmental costs, an inevitable degree of remedial action may be justified. In many countries, for example, large sums are being spent on cleaning watercourses where runoff from mining activities prevents plants or fish from living, on removing dams to allow salmon to move upstream, and on reforestation. The general approach to these legacy situations is to apply some form of informal benefit-cost analysis that seeks to weigh the  immediate costs of remediation against the social benefits for future generations. In many cases, the financial burden for such measures is spread across communities as the state directly shoulders the burden, but in other  cases there  may  be  requirements  for  particular groups to pay. It may, for example, be necessary for a land developer to  clean contaminated  soil associated with a previous land use before new construction is allowed. In some cases, this latter approach can actually pass part of the cost back to those who caused the problem; in the land use example, the seller of the contaminated site will get a lower price for it.

The embrace of legacy effects in the public policy process often  encounters  an  informational  problem. Technology changes over time, and the long-term environmental implications of any action are difficult to fully assess, particularly when there are major technological or social changes taking place. In general, the world’s current generations are materially better off than previous generations; its members live longer and there is also evidence that in many respects the environment is locally less polluted than it was forty or fifty years ago. Consequently, simply thinking in terms of the costs of future remedial actions to counter ongoing environmental intrusions may produce overestimates. Additionally, there are some current actions now that we do not understand well enough to be able to assess their legacy effects, either negative or positive. The  lack of  any  real indication  of  the  risks involved makes “insurance” policies difficult to formulate in these circumstances, and hence many advocate abstinence from any actions without knowing their full implications.

To  combat  current  environmental effects that  we know will be passed on to future generations, a number of microand  macrostrategies have been adopted.  At the micro level, many countries seek to economize on excessive resource  depletion  by  stimulating  recycling—for example, by requiring payment of a deposit at the time of purchase of an item, which is refunded when the item is returned for recycling. These initiatives encompass such items as bottles and cans, and even motor vehicles in some Scandinavian countries. There are also various standards that  effectively “sunset”  any  adverse environmental effects—for example,  the  compulsory  use  of  biodegradable materials for some products, or term limits on fisheries.

Macro legacy effects include global warming and the handling of nuclear products. Both of these are long-term matters  affecting generations  extending  far  into  the future. They  also have international  ramifications; the effects represent a legacy with implications for citizens of other countries. Efforts to deal with this type of intergenerational externality have involved the  United  Nations (e.g., the  International  Atomic Energy Agency) and  a series of global summits (resulting in, for example, the Kyoto Protocol).


  1. Button, Kenneth , Roger Stough, Peter Arena, et al. 1999. Dealing with Environmental Legacy Effects: The Economic and Social Benefits of Acid Mine Drainage Remediation. International Journal of Environment and Pollution 12 (4) 459–475.
  2. World Commission on Environment and Dev 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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