America's Environmental Report Card: Are We Making the Grade? Harvey Blatt. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005. 277 pp. $27.95 (ISBN 0262025728 cloth).
In the last few years there have been many notable books reporting on the state of the US or global environment. These include The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben (New York: Random House, 1989); Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, by J. R. McNeill (New York: Norton, 2000); Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, by James Gustave Speth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004); and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond (New York: Viking, 2004). None of these authors should be confused with environmental doomsayers, yet they all deliver a somber message. Sufficient compelling scientific information exists that would lead rational people to be concerned about immediate and long-term effects of environmental change on human well-being.
Harvey Blatt's new book, America's Environmental Report Card: Are We Making the Grade? can now be added to the list of sobering and informative books on the environment. Written for the lay-person, it assesses the state of the US environment in terms of water use, flood control, waste disposal, soil conservation, energy conservation and global warming, air pollution, ozone control, and nuclear waste disposal. The grades Blatt assigns to different aspects of the nation's environment range from A– (ozone control) to D (energy conservation and global warming), with an overall evaluation of C. I had concerns about whether the grading was on a curve. Presumably, the author had benchmark standards in mind in order to assign these grades, but unfortunately these were never made clear. Assigning standards for environmental integrity is clearly difficult but seems a prerequisite to any evaluation.
The book is filled with facts about the state of the US environment, many of which are shocking. For example, as of 2003, 270,000 miles of rivers and streams were too polluted for fishing and swimming; about 70 million people, 25 percent of the American population, live near a toxic waste site, and 1 in 10 women of childbearing age is at risk for having a baby born with neurological problems due to in utero mercury exposure. These examples are noteworthy because all are relevant to recent policy proposals by the Bush administration. Proposals to relax the standards of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act will exacerbate water and air pollution, respectively. Incentives to increase power generation, coupled with relaxed emission standards for coal-fired power plants, will increase mercury levels in the environment. And exemptions of Department of Defense lands from environmental regulations are likely to increase the amount of toxic waste; the military is responsible for the generation of more than one-third of the nation's toxic waste each year.
I have found these facts useful in discussions with local government officials and social acquaintances. They tend to dispel the optimistic view held by many Americans that we are on a trajectory toward better environmental quality. However, the connections between statements in Blatt's book and the peer-reviewed scientific literature are very uneven. Many references are to the popular literature and may not withstand scrutiny if brought into the policy or legal arena.
Throughout, the author is unambiguous in stating that nearly all of America's environmental problems are political and social, not scientific, problems. For the most part, the scientific community knows how to address environmental degradation, but scientists are often distant from the policy arena. Blatt also candidly acknowledges that special-interest groups and corporations have an undue influence on US environmental policies that is disproportionate to their numbers. This influence seems to be pronounced in the current political setting, in which environmental regulations have been reduced or only weakly enforced.
The question remains as to what to do with all the facts contained in this book. In the concluding chapter, the author attempts to dispel some myths and provide some guidance that may lead to greater environmental quality. For example, he claims, beliefs that environmental regulations cause widespread unemployment, plant shutdowns, and loss of businesses to foreign countries are generally untrue. The reality is that environmental regulations can often lead to economic gains. Many of his suggestions are directed at the individual and focus on decisions we all make on a regular basis—that is, what vehicle to purchase, how long to stay in the shower, and whether to recycle. This type of guidance seems somewhat trite given the scale of America's environmental problems, but it could be argued that the collective effect of individual choices can be pronounced.
One of the more interesting topics discussed in the concluding chapter is the benefits of environmental taxes. The true costs of agriculture and industry are often in the form of externalities—water pollution from agricultural runoff and increased respiratory disorders due to smokestack emissions, for example—that are imposed on the public, not on those who financially benefit from these activities. Taxing environmentally destructive activities has the dual advantage of raising revenue for environmental protection and providing health and quality-of-life benefits to the public.As the author points out, many countries have adopted systems of environmental taxes that have not resulted in significant economic impacts but have provided substantial environmental benefits. Unfortunately, America is not one of these countries.
The facts presented in America's Environmental Report Card should prove useful to citizens who want to be better informed about the actual state of America's environment. The book should also dispel the belief that America is the global leader in environmental protection. However, how to act on this information is less clear. Convincing the American public that environmental protection and restoration should be high on their list of priorities seems a formidable task.