Yale Book "Thinking Ecologically" Draws on Expert Opinions To Guide Next Generation of Environmental Policies

Twenty-five years ago, highly visible pollution from the largest factories mobilized Americans to lobby for sweeping environmental reforms. Contaminated rivers like Ohio's Cuyahoga River -- so saturated with pollutants that it caught fire -- demanded immediate action, as did belching industrial smokestacks that produced city smog so thick drivers couldn't see three stoplights ahead.

Twenty-five years ago, highly visible pollution from the largest factories mobilized Americans to lobby for sweeping environmental reforms. Contaminated rivers like Ohio’s Cuyahoga River – so saturated with pollutants that it caught fire – demanded immediate action, as did belching industrial smokestacks that produced city smog so thick drivers couldn’t see three stoplights ahead.

The resulting flurry of grassroots activity in the 1970s brought about the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and more than a dozen lesser-known statutes. “To a large extent, these laws worked,” says Daniel C. Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “Significant reductions in pollution from big factory smokestacks and effluent pipes have been achieved. Our water and air are significantly cleaner.”

But the prospects for further progress along the same path are limited, according to the authors of “Thinking Ecologically: The Next Generation of Environmental Policy”, Yale University Press, October 1997, co-edited by Marian R. Chertow and Professor Esty. Today’s environmental threats – ozone layer depletion, global warming and endocrine disrupters, for example – are less visible, more subtle and more difficult to address than the black skies or orange rivers of a generation ago.

“Like nature itself, environmental problems constantly evolve. So, too, must our strategies for dealing with them,” says Ms. Chertow, an industrial environmental management expert on the faculty of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies – F&ES.

While the first generation of environmental reform targeted big business, the next generation needs to include thousands of smaller companies and millions of consumers. “We must try to influence the choices of all Americans, because their decisions about what to buy, where to live, how much to drive, what to throw away, and where to shop will profoundly shape the quality of our environment,” Ms. Chertow says.

“Thinking Ecologically” is the final product of “The Next Generation Project,” a two-year environmental-reform effort sponsored by Yale and directed by Ms. Chertow. The project brought together about 500 scientists, environmental activists and industrialists for two international conferences as well as 14 regional workshops, each of which resulted in a book chapter. Authors included Swiss industrialist Stephen Schmidheiny, a key leader in the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro; and John Turner, president of The Conservation Fund in Arlington, Va., and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Our goal is to develop a new way of thinking that can serve as the framework of environmental policy for the next 25 years,” says Professor Esty, a lawyer and former E.P.A. assistant administrator. The book’s recommendations – which cover topics ranging from land use and property rights to technological innovation, ecosystem protection and industrial ecology – are based on these premises:

* To change behavior, policy makers must provide incentives for both producers and consumers, and adopt a “polluter-pays” approach funded by road tolls, bottle deposits, excise taxes and other consumer fees, according to the authors. “Putting the costs of environmental cleanup on those who cause harm stands at the center of domestic environmental laws everywhere,” Professor Eesty says.

* Rather than focusing on manufacturing companies and their visible emissions to rivers and smokestacks, the new vision for environmental reform includes the service economy: health care, transportation, telecommunications, etc., which employs 80 percent of Americans.

* Instead of supporting legislation that deals separately with air, water and land, the new vision encourages legislators to look at entire ecosystems. “The emerging field of industrial ecology explores technological and natural systems together, and looks at a product’s entire life cycle from creation to disposal,” Ms. Chertow says.

* Rather than casting business leaders in the role of environmental “bad guys,” the new vision seeks to make business and capital investors part of the solution.

* In contrast to an E.P.A.-centered view, the new vision examines the whole network of environmental decision-makers, which includes not only mayors, farmers, service-delivery route planners and energy marketers, but also state and federal environmental officials, environmentalists and business people.

International Arena:

Moving from the national to the international level, the book examines ideas for global cooperation to curb environmental pollutants such as greenhouse gases. “For the next generation of environmental policy, we must view our concerns not as singular rainstorms, but as weather patterns that effect the entire ecosystem,” says Professor Esty, who has joint faculty appointments in the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale School of Law.

With U.S. leadership, the idea of charging both giant corporations and individuals for pollution that drifts beyond local borders could be established as the cornerstone of worldwide environmental control, he says. The book’s recommendations for the global arena include:

* Narrowing the international environmental agenda to reserve local action for local harms, national actions for larger-scale issues, and global action for problems that transcend national borders. International activities, therefore, should focus on management of the “global commons,” such as the oceans and atmosphere.

* Making private capital the central engine of sustainable development. For example, every developing country must find ways to attract foreign investment into water and sewage infrastructures, and into industrial pollution controls.

* Redefining the World Bank’s development role to get it out of the business of funding big projects such as dams and power plants. Instead the World Bank’s central mission should be to do what national governments will not: underwrite prevention and control of transboundary pollution.

“This would mean, for example, that the World Bank would help the Chinese build high-efficiency electric generating stations with appropriate smokestack controls to replace polluting coal power plants,” says Professor Esty. He adds that the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, now under negotiation in Paris by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, offers mechanisms to support global capital investments, if environmental guidelines are added.

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