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Pollution is the contamination of the natural environment by one or more substances or practices. Most pollution is an externality—an unintended by-product—of the use of energy and other products that have become central to industrial society. As a consequence, pollution is very difficult to eliminate, because doing so requires change in people’s use of these central products and systems. The automobile, for example, is the single most important component of the transportation systems of Western industrial economies, yet it is also a major source of air and water pollution, toxic wastes, and noise.
Pollution of vital “common resources” such as air and water is an especially challenging problem. Because these resources are owned by society as a whole and cannot be divided among individuals, their use is often regarded as being free. The benefits to the individual of using common resources (for instance, disposing of chemical wastes by dumping them in a river) are frequently tangible and immediate (in this case, avoiding the expense of proper disposal), whereas the costs of such use are typically longterm, intangible, and paid by the community as a whole (in the form of polluted water). Thus, it appears to be rational for an individual to make maximum use of common resources, even at the risk of their overuse and eventual destruction.
The single most important cause of pollution, especially in industrial societies, is the use of fossil fuels in cars, industries, and homes. Fossil fuels include petroleum, coal, natural gas, and uranium. Major forms of air pollution, such as global warming, acid rain, depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, and airborne toxic chemicals, all result at least in part from the incomplete burning of fossil fuels. The main piece of legislation governing air pollution in the United States is the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA), first passed in 1970 and amended several times, most notably in 1990. The guiding principle of the CAAA was to require that industrial expansion incorporate efforts to reduce air pollution. Market-based incentives have been added to the CAAA, particularly in the 1990 acid rain title, and are considered by many economists and policymakers to be more effective and more politically palatable than the traditional command-andcontrol approach to pollution control.
Fossil fuels cause water pollution as well, in the form of oil spills, industrial emissions, and acid rain. Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972 to restore the integrity of U.S. waters, and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, giving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to set standards for drinking water quality, which are implemented by the states. These legislative initiatives have had demonstrable though partial success, though many aspects of water pollution control, such as the protection of wetlands, remain highly controversial and limited.
Toxic chemical wastes became an important issue in environmental policy soon after the tragedy of Love Canal, an area of Niagara Falls, New York, where the Hooker Chemical Company transferred ownership of some land to the local government for the building of a school. Hooker Chemical had previously dumped massive quantities of hazardous chemicals in the area, and families living nearby began to be alarmed by an unusually high incidence of illnesses and birth defects. The Superfund program, passed in 1980 and reauthorized in 1986, has been the most far-reaching and expensive legislative effort to clean up toxic wastes on land that has been abandoned by its owners. The program has a significant number of drawbacks, however, including the facts that a substantial amount of Superfund money has been spent on lawsuits rather than on remediation of sites, the number of sites cleaned up is a small proportion of the total proposed for cleanup, and the program has slowed almost to a standstill since the 1990s.
Another serious pollution problem stems from the use of artificial radioactivity for the development and testing of nuclear weapons as well as for the production of electrical power. Although nuclear power plants do not emit the same levels of air pollutants that coal and oilfired power plants do, radioactive substances such as uranium and plutonium are powerful poisons. Meltdowns and near-meltdowns of nuclear plants (such as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 in Ukraine) have sharply discouraged the use of nuclear power in the United States, as has the inability to create completely inviolable, long-term storage for nuclear wastes.
In addition, pollution problems and loss of habitats have contributed to the extinction of many species of plants and animals. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 established a series of regulations to protect endangered and threatened species and the ecosystems on which they depend. The ESA generally has been considered to be successful; conflicts between requirements of the ESA and projects proposed by developers were effectively resolved during most of the act’s existence. However, in recent years the property rights movement has taken strong exception to the continued enforcement of the ESA.
Other forms of pollution are less commonly recognized. One is indoor air pollution. As people work to bring down the high cost of heating and cooling by weatherproofing their homes, the atmosphere in these more airtight homes is more easily contaminated by pollutants such as cigarette smoke and toxins given off by carpeting, paneling, and household chemicals. Another, less commonly recognized form is light pollution: the excessive use of artificial light that brightens the dark sky, interfering with the work of amateur astronomers and harming nocturnal wildlife and other ecosystems. A third, noise pollution, refers to excessive noise levels, typically in urban and industrial areas, which not only disrupt people’s lives and work but also raise blood pressure and stress levels, cause hearing loss, and interfere with the natural feeding, breeding, and migration cycles of animals.
Desertification—the encroachment of desert-like conditions into semidesert land—has been identified in large areas of Asia, Africa, and North America. The use of wood rather than oil or coal for fuel leads people in many developing nations to cut trees on a large scale; this often leads to disastrous flooding because tree roots can no longer hold topsoil in place when the rainy season comes. The burning of agricultural lands to clear dead vegetation, a common practice among farmers in many nations, can cause clouds of soot to move across neighboring nations.
Many of the most common forms of pollution have substantial economic impacts. Increases in air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and urban ozone affect human health, causing or worsening conditions such as asthma, emphysema, and lung cancer. The resulting costs of medical treatment and shortened life expectancy affect a nation’s productivity. Those who usually suffer are often the most vulnerable members of society: the elderly, the sick, the poor, and the very young. The environmental justice movement charges that the burden of pollutioncaused health problems tends to fall most heavily on disadvantaged groups because these groups are least able to mobilize politically to demand pollution control. In more affluent areas, NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) groups often have been successful at preventing the siting of incinerators, waste dumps, and other environmental hazards that can undermine property values in their neighborhoods.
Cleaning up pollution is very expensive as well. The EPA estimated that the provisions of the CAAA have cost $523 billion to implement between 1970 and 1990 (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1997). Some economists and political leaders regard this as unproductive spending, in that these expenditures do not help the businesses spending the money produce more goods. According to the 1997 EPA study, however, during this time period the application of the CAAA saved 205,000 American lives and provided between $6 and $50 trillion in economic benefits. Spending on pollution control goes in part to fund the manufacture of pollution control equipment, which adds to economic growth.
Pollution levels in the United States generally have improved as a result of the pollution-control policies of the past thirty years. Recycling and “precycling” (developing methods of manufacture that produce smaller amounts of waste) have reduced the production of solid wastes in many communities. The amount of lead (a neurotoxin) recorded in the air and in human blood samples is substantially down from 1970 levels, in large part because of the removal of lead from gasoline, due to the CAAA. Some international agreements have been effective, such as the Montreal Protocol (1987), which appears to have stabilized the problem of depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer. The improvement has been uneven, however. Urban ozone levels remain a substantial problem for most big cities in the United States. Global warming (Gore 2006) poses an extremely serious risk to the planet, and pollution problems are worsening rapidly in many industrializing nations, such as China and India.
- Caldwell, Lynton 1996. International Environmental Policy. 3rd ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Gore, 2006. An Inconvenient Truth. DVD, Paramount Home Entertainment.
- Hardin, Garrett, and John Baden, 1998. Managing the Commons. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Rosenbaum, Walter 2004. Environmental Politics and Policy. 6th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
- S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1997. Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act: Retrospective Study—1970 to
- Available from http://www.epa.gov/air/sect812/retro.html.
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