Issue A: Environmental Resource Management
How can an understanding of the resource continuum be used for better environmental resource management?
Environmental (or natural) resource management rests on the principle that there is an interconnectedness joining various elements of the environment and that these elements are mutually supportive. Thus, the destruction, depletion, or contamination of a significant component can have negative effects that can iterate through the entire ecological system.
Excessive timber cutting: Wood products have long been in great demand, a situation which often leads to large-scale deforestation. This has often had long-term negative—sometimes disastrous—outcomes. For example, massive timber cutting programs in the northern portion of the American Midwest during the 1880-1920 period not only resulted in eroded soil in some of the most productive land in the United States, it also contributed to massive flooding during the 1930s. When intact, those forests collectively held substantial amounts of ground water in place. When the forests were stripped of trees, that water was free to flow uncontrolled, an outcome that had disastrous effects on farmland much further south. This outcome was only ameliorated through concerted reforestation programs.
Environmental Resource Management and Policy
Riparian rights: ‘Riparian rights’ refer to the medieval common law right of anyone with property bordering a river to use the flowing water to his general advantage. (Of course, hundreds of years ago, in the absence of industrial development, natural cleansing functions were such that little, if any, ecological development occurred.) However, reliance on riparian rights in a modern industrial society can have catastrophic impacts on down-stream populations. For example, reliance on public river waters for certain industrial purposes (e.g., paper mills) can make river water unfit for human consumption unless extensively treated. And, in any event, a river under such conditions can become ecologically ‘dead’—it cannot sustain aquatic life. These unwanted outcomes have been reversed through changes in public policy. For example, riverside industrial water users in modern industrial nations are required to return ‘waste’ water into a river in the same (or better) condition than when first it was drawn into use. Riverside private dwellings cannot deliver raw sewage into rivers. (This policy, combined with prudent water treatment programs, has radically reduced the incidence of waterborne diseases, such as typhoid and cholera. Presence of these pathogens in river waters near populated areas was closely associated with population density. This does not argue that modern urban civilization must be ecologically destructive, per se. Rather, it simply highlights the problems that may arise under such circumstances.)
Uncontrolled air pollution: While there are certainly many advantages attributable to industrial development, historically one of the unwanted side effects was air pollution, the presence of particulates that both contributed to sick-air negative health outcomes and, at least in some instances, affected local agriculture (e.g., by depositing lead and mercury in the soil). Again, and as with riparian rights, this outcome was not intentional. Rather, it came about through reliance on traditional rules of social behavior that proved insufficient to meet radically changed circumstances.
Issue B: Environmental Change
Examine the issues that arise from the suggestion that we should spend large sums of money now to ameliorate the problems that could arise from climate change towards the end of the 21st century.
Responding to prospective climate change, especially at a distance of several decades, raises a spectrum of issues that likely render the effort an exercise in futility. There are a number of fundamental issues at work: (1) there is no certainty regarding the direction that climate change may be taking during the remainder of the century; (2) even if a general consensus were to develop regarding such a general trend, it may well be completely beyond our capabilities to overcome or redirect it; and (3) beyond certain very basic considerations (e.g., sufficient food production), we have no clear idea regarding the nature of economic and social requirements that will prevail 80 or 90 years in the future. There are, however, certain fundamental considerations and, for that matter, courses of action that could be undertaken that will almost certainly be in the interest of populations two or three generations in the future.
Reducing the carbon imbalance: Global warming is attributed to increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide. (In absolute terms, atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased significantly over the past 200 years. To what extent this increase actually relates to a long term warming trend remains in debate.) Assuming that fossil fuel burning is directly related to an unwanted long-term warming trend, it would be in the interest of populations around the globe to undertake responsive action. As a practical matter, there is no immediately available technology that can replace fossil fuel burning to any significant extent. However, even in the absence of new or anticipated technology, certain corrective actions may be taken. Probably the most helpful would be reforestation. Simply stated, trees—understood as ‘living cellulose’—amount to ‘stored’ carbon. During a tree’s life cycle, it converts carbon dioxide and water from the environment into living matter. A concerted worldwide reforestation program, irrespective general population growth during the remainder of the century, would redress much of the current (and projected) problem and, for that matter, improve lives in the more immediate future.
Undertake responsible nuclear waste storage programs: If, over the next few decades, nations collectively decide to place greater emphasis on nuclear power as an energy source, it would only be prudent to establish nuclear waste storage facilities in geologically inactive areas in various parts of the globe. The United States has suspended development of the Yucca Mountain storage facility, purely for political reasons. This decision has grave implications for the future development of nuclear power.
Uncertainty regarding climate-related future outcomes: As a practical matter, we can only speculate about the nature of prospective changes attributable to climate change. For example, there are both warming and cooling climate models that consider the possibility of significant change in the strength and direction of the flow of the Gulf Stream. Even in the presence of significant global warming, if Gulf Stream flow were to be significantly affected, life in northern Europe would be gravely affected—likely turning much colder and less habitable (however much the rest of the globe heated up).
Issue C: Sustainable Development
Question 3: Identify the key factors underpinning the international trade in hazardous waste. Is this trade sustainable?
In simplest economic terms, nations export certain waste products (e.g., CRTs, E-waste) because it is a cheaper solution than performing comparable industrial harm reduction and neutralization efforts in-country. While American legislation—the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act [RCRA], implemented by EPA—governs waste management programs (including export), the United States is not a party to the ‘Basel’ international convention governing the overall issue. Most exported American waste is destined for Canada, Mexico, or the Philippines. There are a number of interrelated social and economic issues at work.
Health hazards: Electronic waste (e-waste) contains significant amounts of heavy metals (e.g., lead, mercury) which, if exposed to the elements, contribute to air and water pollution. These waste products can be buried in solid waste landfill, although both administrative costs (in the form of EIS) and storage costs (in the form of assuring underground integrity) are onerous. Furthermore, actual destruction of these products (e.g., through high-temperature burning) can only be accomplished under tightly controlled conditions, so as to avoid lead and mercury vapor escape. Under these circumstances, it is cheaper to export the materials. However, as a practical matter, the waste management problems travel with the exported material. And, as a corollary, that material is often destined for a venue in which long-term management is haphazard, at best.
Asymmetric economic incentives: The overall level of economic development (and imputed social concern) in such countries as the United States, Japan, and the OECD presupposes, at least in theory, that recovery-reuse efforts will take precedence over intrinsic economic interests—that is, that efforts to extract even trace amounts of toxic metals and other dangerous materials will be undertaken even though sources are less expensive. In most advanced nations, these expectations are written into public law. As a practical matter, however, it is cheaper to export. For the receiving nation, matters are often otherwise, especially where labor costs are low and regulatory efforts are minimal. According to a recent report of the Congressional Research Service, “Operations in Guiyu in the Shantou region of China have gained particular attention. Observed recycling operations involve burning the plastic coverings of materials to extract metals for scrap, openly burning circuit boards to remove solder or soaking them in acid baths to strip them for gold or other metals. Acid baths are then dumped into surface water. Among other impacts to those areas have been elevated blood lead levels in children and soil and water contaminated with heavy metals.” This, in turn, raises fundamental moral questions. While it may be argued that securing the health and general well-being of persons living in Third World-level environments is properly the purview of local governments, the fact remains that most citizens of modern liberal democracies are loath to be associated, however indirectly, with international trade efforts that ultimately and irretrievably impair the health of defenseless persons.
Changing conditions in importing countries: As economic conditions in major importing countries (e.g., China, India) improve, it is likely that closer attention will be paid to the health and environmental impact of primitive e-waste reuse industrial methods. (In effect, human ‘value’ rises as countries become more prosperous.) Under such circumstances, the number of importing countries will drop or become more regionally concentrated (e.g., sub-Saharan Africa). While such an outcome may be considered a modest improvement—lives have become better in Asia—the fact remains that conditions for many Africans, already tenuous, could be considerably worsened. (As a corollary, heavy metal soil pollution negatively affects cereal production. Hence, primitive efforts at valuable metal recovery could well contaminate the soil the extent that food production, now barely able to meet existing demand, could be reduced.)
Applying international agreements: It might be argued that if all industrial nations adhered to the Basel Convention—a agreement placing severe restrictions on hazardous exports—these problems would be ameliorated. Perhaps, in some limited sense that may actually be the case. However, such an approach invokes a ‘moral hazard’ problem: it becomes an incentive for one or more industrial nations to cheat, if only because by cheating overall industrial production costs are reduced and the cheating nation ultimately enjoys an implicit advantage over law-abiding competitors. (This is likely the reason the United States has so far failed to ratify the Basel Convention.)
In light of foregoing, it appears that, at least in theory, the current export model can continue. However, if social costs become too high, industrial nations may unilaterally decide eventually to eliminate the practice.