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Global Warming: Is it Real, are Humans the Cause, & can Anything be Done?

Tabular Iceberg Break
A massive, newly calved “tabular” iceberg breaks
loose into the Weddell Sea to meet its destiny

Editor’s Note: It’s hard to publish anything that might challenge theories of global warming – either the severity of it or the cause. We’ve published several essays with contrarian perspectives; DDT, Nuclear Power, GMO’s and Recycling, to name a few. And in those articles points were raised that we stand behind. We don’t believe these issues to be beyond debate.

Global warming is another story. This issue is so cataclysmic, so complex, and so intertwined with passionate political conflicts, that it almost seems best to leave it alone – go with the conventional wisdom.

There is a book entitled “Infinite In All Directions” published in 1988 by the visionary scientist and writer Freeman Dyson. In this book he has a chapter entitled “Nuclear Winter,” where he discusses what was then a highly publicized scientific theory describing the worldwide meteorlogical and ecological consequences of a nuclear war. In this chapter Dyson writes the following:

“As a scientist, I judge the nuclear winter theory to be a sloppy piece of work, full of gaps and unjustified assumptions. As a human being, I hope fervently it is right.”

Dyson wanted to believe in nuclear winter, because if enough people believed it, maybe humanity would avoid fighting a nuclear war. Unimpeachable motives. Bad science.

Is it possible that the political statement behind global warming theories – the worthy imperative for us to use energy more efficiently, to wean ourselves of petroleum, to achieve energy independence – has made these theories take on credibility beyond their scientific merit?

In this article the author takes a hard look at the theory of global warming, and concludes the cause is probably that the sun – which fluctuates in output – is simply entering a hotter phase. Perhaps we don’t agree politically with the rest of what global warming sceptics might believe. But that doesn’t absolve us of the need to always pursue the truth.

Ed “Redwood” Ring

The catch all term “global warming” (GW) has evolved to the point where true believers use the term to mean that not only is the earth rapidly warming, but that the warming is almost entirely due to human industrial activity and the resulting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, especially in the United States and Europe.

It appears that a majority of climatologists, atmospheric scientists, and meteorologists (we will call them collectively “CAMs”) believe this. The term “climate change” is used by those who, while allowing that the earth is warming to some degree or other, do not necessarily believe that CO2 emissions from human power generation has much, if anything, to do with it.

World Temperature Increase Projection Map
NASA’s Global Climate Model predicts
the Earth’s temperature will increase by
up to 10 degrees centigrade by 2060

The earth has been warming for the last 10,000 years on average since the last ice age, when most of North America and Europe were covered with glaciers. Over hundreds of millions of years the earth has gone through periodic cycles of warming and cooling without the help of humans. Radiation from the sun is variable over eons. In 2001, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences issued a report suggesting that increased radiation from the sun (our very own thermonuclear fireball) may be responsible for much of the climate change in the last century. In other words, over the centuries, the sun flickers!

The average person who only gets his information from the mass media would never know that the GW concept is actually debatable, with many very heated (pun intended) debates going on at scientific meetings of CAMs. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N. sponsored group of more than 2,000 scientists from over 100 countries, has concluded that human activity is a major factor in elevated atmospheric CO2 levels (probably true), and this will result in rising temperatures and sea levels that could prove catastrophic for multi-millions of coastal dwelling folk all over the world (very debateable).

The IPCC panel concluded that in the last century, earth’s average global surface temperature had risen between 0.4-0.8 °C. They also estimated (read “guessed”) that by 2100 the global average would rise by 1.4 to 5.8 °C., depending on a, very wide range of scenarios for greenhouse gas emissions. This was widely reported in the mass media. On the other hand, the “Oregon Petition” of 2001, signed by some 18,000 scientists from all disciplines, said there was no convincing evidence that human activity is responsible, or will be responsible, for any catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. That was not widely reported.

Examples abound of media hyperbole that convinces the average person that the world is in deep trouble (aside from movies like “Day After Tomorrow”). Tom Costello of NBC says, “From tsunamis to catastrophic hurricanes, famine in Africa and wildfires in California, the evidence of human induced GW, they say, is overwhelming”. CBS’s “60 Minutes”, recently featured a CAM who is warning of the worst case scenario (let’s all get really scared), that the earth is warming due to human generated CO2 emission, sea levels will rise by three feet (a few inches or more is the mainstream CAM thinking) in another hundred years, and there is nothing we can do about it now so get used to it!

After hurricane Katrina, famed environmentalist (and CAM?) Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., blamed president Bush for the damage from the hurricane because Bush didn’t endorse the Kyoto Protocols of 1997 in which many countries vowed to limit their CO2 emissions in the future to fight GW. It seems he was implying that if Al Gore had won the election in 2000, Katrina would not have happened because Gore would have seen to it that the U.S. would comply with the protocols. Never mind that the U.S. senate voted 95 to 0 not to ratify it because of the huge hit on the U.S. economy compliance would entail. And Bill Clinton never even brought it up for a vote. In fact, even many true believer CAMs, including Al Gore, realize that the agreement was so flawed that signing it would only have symbolic value. China and India (nearly half the world’s population) were exempt, and there were no means of enforcement. Anybody could sign and then ignore, which they have done. Several European countries that signed on are now emitting MORE CO2 than before.

State of Fear Book Cover
State of Fear
by Michael Crichton

Here are two diametrically opposed views on this subject: In, “State of Fear”, Michael Crichton’s recent best selling novel about eco-terrorists, he advances a very well researched contrarian viewpoint. Although a fiction novel, he presents real scientific data arguing against greenhouse gas induced warming. A book by Ross Gelbspan, a former Boston Globe reporter, entitled “Boiling Point” is a disaster scenario book about GW, in which he predicts mega-droughts and huge sea level increases, refugees, a Northern hemisphere deep freeze, malaria, etc. etc. He calls anyone who doesn’t agree with him “criminals against humanity”. But even he believes that if the U.S. did ratify the Kyoto treaty, it wouldn’t make any difference; the CO2 level in the atmosphere would continue to rise, as would the earth’s temperature. The IPCC, in the same report cited above, estimates that the global temperature will rise by about 1 deg. C by 2050. They go on to say that if the Kyoto agreement were to be fully complied with, including the U.S., global temperature would still rise by 0.94 degrees. That’s a difference of 0.06 degrees!! Obviously Kyoto is nothing more than politically correct symbolism.

Boiling Point Book Cover
Boiling Point
by Ross Gelbspan

It is no wonder, however, that average folks think the GW theology is absolutely true. A (small?) majority of CAMs are true believers. A CAM wrote in a recent issue of Scientific American magazine, “Scientists know that carbon dioxide is warming the atmosphere, which in turn is causing sea level to rise, and that the CO2 absorbed by the oceans is acidifying the water”. This is the kind of CAM that the media always quotes, not the infidel CAMs. He then goes on to say, quite rightly, that no one knows what the long term effects of this “fact” on the earth’s ecological systems might be. The real fact is his statement is not true in the first place. NOBODY knows for sure whether climate change is natural or human induced, or possibly both; if and how much overall global temperature may be rising; and whether CO2 generated by human activities has anything to do with it.

Few would argue that the various greenhouse gases (discussed below) present in the atmosphere don’t have a significant effect on global climate; it’s just that their effect is virtually impossible to quantify. In fact, a theory has been put forward that the earth would be entering a new ice age if not for the various greenhouse gases. Atmospheric science is even more inexact than economics. Are your local weather forecasts always right, even more than one or two days ahead of time? The climate is so complex and poorly understood that elaborate computer models are used to make all those doomsday predictions you read about. A computer model, however, is only as good as the assumptions that the programmers put into it. The enormous number of variables affecting the earth’s climate, some probably we are not even aware of, and feedback from one variable that affects another cannot be modeled realistically. Weather forecasting is, at best, problematic even over a period of days; so why do we think we can predict the weather/climate 50-100 years from now?

U.S. National Temperature Record Chart from 1900 to 2000
NOAA’s U.S. National Temperature
record from 1900 to 2000
(Red line = average weighted temperature)

Let us consider some of the actual debate about scientific evidence involved in the GW debate among CAMs. Believers point to temperature records over the last 100 years or so that show a definite increase. Infidels say this is due to the fact that 100 years ago temperatures were measured in rural environments, while later in the last century urbanization of our society led to temperature measurements influenced by the heat generated by the concrete and steel of the city. Some evidence seems to show that the Antarctic ice is melting away, threatening future rise in earth’s sea level.

Some evidence points to the likelihood that the southern icecap is actually thickening. On the other hand, glaciers are melting all over the world and the Arctic ice is melting, but maybe that’s just what you would expect in a normal interglacial period over thousands of years. A greater frequency of hurricanes is evident due to GW? Maybe, but it also could be a normal hurricane cycle similar to what we had from 1950-1970. Increased ocean temperature due to the greenhouse effect may be causing the hurricanes to be more intense than before?

Perhaps not, El Nino and La Nina cycles may be major influences also. Then again, maybe last year’s hurricane season was an aberration. These are questions being debated by CAMs under the mass media radar. What are we non-theological people to believe?

Here’s the crux of the whole debate. Before 1998, CAMs generally accepted that the earth had undergone large temperature fluctuations over eons. The Vikings named it “Greenland” probably because it was discovered in a global warm period in the tenth century. There were lush pastures for raising cattle, which they did. The idea that they named it “Greenland” to lure unsuspecting settlers is probably just a myth. During the “little ice age” from about 1500 to 1800 A.D., Greenland froze over and George Washington’s troops practically froze to death at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. It never gets that cold in New Jersey anymore. The perceived global warming since then was attributed to natural rebound, especially since most of the warming occurred before 1940. Whoops, most of the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels occurred after 1940. Think about it.

Nasa Logo

Then came the now famous “hockey stick” study by Michael Mann, an American CAM, published in the prestigious journal “Nature” in 1998. The alarmist IPCC report cited above based its assessment of climate change almost solely on Mann’s study. In essence, he said all the historical temperature data was wrong. He claimed his data showed that there has been only a gradual global temperature change over the last millennium, but that there has been a very sharp rise in the last 100 years, i.e., his temperature graph looked like a hockey stick.

Industrial emissions of CO2 now became the bad guy because its concentration in the atmosphere increased from 315 ppm (parts per million) in 1957 to 370 ppm in 2002. Hotter temperatures, greenhouse gas CO2 increase; ergo GW is due to emissions from human use of fossil fuels, which when burned, emit CO2. It’s a theory that has not been proven scientifically. A scientist can perform a laboratory experiment to determine how strong a greenhouse gas CO2 is and what its affect is in some laboratory model system. But to extrapolate laboratory results to predict what is actually happening in the earth’s atmosphere is impossible. It’s all assumptions and imperfect computer models.

Here’s how scientific research is, in general, supposed to work. Some researchers conduct some laboratory experiment or statistical study and get results that appear to support some hypothesis or theory. After peer review, the results are published in a scientific journal. The Mann paper is an example. In this case, it was a sensational paper that rattled the conventional wisdom of CAMs, thus it attracted lots of media attention. The next step is for fellow scientists from around the world to either criticize or support that data by trying to reproduce those reported results. If the original research is confirmed by other scientists from around the world, it becomes generally accepted as true.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Logoee

In the case of Mann’s influential study predicting a “hockey stick” increase in global temperatures due to increased CO2 emissions, however, Mann’s results have not been reproduced. In fact, Mann’s results have been called into serious question by two scientists, Canadian mathematician Stephen McIntyre and economist Ross McKitrick. They revisited Mann’s own data and concluded, in 2003, that his results were riddled with “collation errors, unjustifiable truncations or extrapolation of source data, obsolete data, geographical location errors, and incorrect calculations of principal components.” In other words, Mann’s study is in their eyes, deeply flawed. When they corrected Mann’s results for these errors, they contend, the hockey stick model disappeared! Mann has not responded except to say he’s a victim of intimidation. We shall see, but this calls into BIG question the whole CO2 induced GW paradigm. Other CAMs must now step up to do research that might either support or not support these opposite views of data.

As a scientist myself (a chemist, not a CAM), I find it very difficult to believe that such a tiny amount of CO2 (370 ppm) in the atmosphere could be responsible for GW. That is only 0.036% of the earth’s atmosphere. Let’s consider another greenhouse gas, methane, which is ignored in all GW discussions in the media and the Kyoto protocols. Methane is over 20 times stronger a greenhouse gas than CO2, although it is present in the atmosphere at a 100 times lower concentration. But, it is still significant in the whole story. Methane is, of course, the main constituent of natural gas. So when we drill for natural gas, we release lots of methane, which contributes to greenhouse warming even before we burn it to form all that CO2. It is also generated in all bacterial fermentations, which includes landfills, rice paddies, wetlands, termite farts, waste treatment plants, burps from ruminant animals, and most important the brewing of beer (I would never agree to limit my beer intake just to save the planet). I wonder how much methane is exhaled by the billions of cows, sheep, goats, buffalos, etc., which are domesticated by the 4 billion humans on this planet? Of course all that livestock also exhales CO2 with every breath they take, just like us humans do.

Anyway, it is estimated that about 60% of methane in the air is from human activity, and its concentration in the air is increasing twice as fast as is CO2! Kyoto didn’t even consider methane! We won’t even discuss nitrous oxide (released during forest fires and use of nitrogen fertilizers), 300 times more effective a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Now let’s discuss the most potent contributor to the greenhouse effect, by far, i.e., water vapor. There are various estimates, but the best estimate is that about 95% of the greenhouse effect in our atmosphere is due to water vapor, good old H2O, and it’s virtually all natural. Nearly three fourths of the earth’s surface is covered by water, and water evaporates into the air. Apparently, few if any of the computer models invented to try and predict future climatic conditions take water vapor into account, and there is absolutely nothing we humans could do to limit levels of water vapor in the atmosphere anyway; nothing, nada, zero and nichts. The bottom line is that human activities contribute less than 1% to the greenhouse warming effect, probably less than 0.5%.

In April 1911, an iceberg like this sank the mighty Titanic.
Will global warming really melt the icecaps and inundate
the world? And if so, is there anything we can do?

Given the uncertainty in climate models, my guess is as good as anyone’s, so I’ll give it. The sun is in a hot period, raising earth’s average temperature. This in turn causes more water from the oceans to evaporate and raise water vapor concentration in the atmosphere, which in turn accelerates warming. Increases in atmospheric CO2 and methane may also be contributing to the warming, but it can’t be quantified.

So what to do? Humans have lived through warm and cold periods for hundreds of thousands of years and always adapted. So just don’t live to close to what is now the sea level, and maybe think about buying property in Norway or Canada to plant orange trees. Oh, yeah, don’t buy stock in companies selling ski equipment and parkas. And, if you are still worried about human induced CO2 emission and want to do something, even if only symbolic, you should stop lighting fires (emitting CO2 AND water), using your furnace, water heater and anything electrical, driving cars and SUVs, and breathing (however, if you stop breathing, you will emit lots of methane as your body decomposes). Also, lobby for less stringent air pollution rules to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Air pollution, as is commonly found in great profusion in places like Mexico City, Los Angeles, Rome, and New York promotes global cooling because all that dirty particulate matter blocks the sun’s rays from hitting the ground. It’s an anti-greenhouse effect. Also, pray for another volcanic eruption like Krakatoa in 1883, which resulted in severe winters all over the globe due to the millions of tons of particulate matter spewed into the atmosphere.

One final thought: Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal, a favorite of my liberal friends, had this to say about global warming “the problems associated with climate change (whether manmade or natural) are the same old problems of poverty, disease, and natural hazards like floods, storms, and droughts. Money spent directly on these problems is a much surer bet than money spent trying to control a climate change process that we don’t understand.”

EcoWorld - Nature and Technology in Harmony

Posted in Air Pollution, Animals, Atmospheric Science, Cars, Causes, Effects Of Air Pollution, Energy, Global Warming & Climate Change, Landfills, Natural Gas, Nuclear, Other, Radiation, Urbanization2 Comments

A Revolution in Soil Recycling

EarthWorks Continues Crusade to take their Revolutionary Soil Treatment Worldwide
EarthWorks Founder and CEO
Jonathan Brewer

Wouldn’t it be better to clean and reuse contaminated soil?

What if toxins could be inexpensively removed from soil, on-site, instead of being hauled to a landfill? This is the vision that inspired Jonathan Brewer to found EarthWorks Environmental in 1998, and in barely four years his small company has treated over 50 million pounds of contaminated soil. Based in Sacramento, California, Brewer’s company offers a unique and patented innovation, whereby mining equipment used to crush ore is adapted to grind up soil so that chemical or biological reagents can be sprayed onto the fine particles, neutralizing the toxins. This new approach to soil remediation is again attracting customers faster than Brewer can serve them, allowing him to live his dream of “growing and becoming financially successful by cleaning up the planet.”

Earthworks Environmental Inc. Logo

Mainstream methods of soil remediation either require permanent, and very expensive, removal of the contaminated soil, or they require “washing” the soil in cumbersome tanks. Brewer’s machines are fully self-contained, and can be easily transported directly to the contaminated sites, where the soil requiring treatment can be scooped onto a conveyance hopper and fed through the grinders and sprayers, coming out the other end completely treated. Where a soil washing system might be capable of cleaning 500 tons of soil per day, Brewer’s latest machine can clean 200 tons of soil or more per hour! “We can eliminate any toxin for which there is a chemical or biological methodology to degrade,” said Brewer, and that’s almost everything out there.

Contaminated Soil Awaiting Treatment in Gillette, Wyoming
Contaminated Soil Awaiting
Treatment in Gillette, Wyoming

Earthworks Environmental has gotten off to a good start, with four machines now in service and contracts in-process throughout the western United States. But there is huge, explosive potential for a machine that can recycle contaminated soil into clean topsoil for roughly a third the cost of today’s conventional practice of removing and sequestering contaminated soil. Brewer is holding onto a classic example of a disruptive, revolutionary technology, an invention that will not only turn the soil remediation industry on its ears, but also one that can greatly accelerate cleanup of polluted lands worldwide; a solution that cheaply creates clean earth again, instead of expensive removal and relocation of toxic waste.

Soil Treatment Vehicle
The Treatment Begins
EarthWorks Machines Process
Over 200 Tons Per Hour

For three years Jonathan Brewer has built his business like an entrepreneur, reinvesting his profits into refining his product, winning new business, growing slowly. Meanwhile the commercial potential and the environmental benefits for his revolutionary process call for rapid growth, requiring huge investments. EarthWorks is always on the lookout for strategic partners who are preparing to invest in conventional soil washing technology. EarthWorks offers a revolution in soil recycling to such an investor.

Treated Soil Pile
Treated Soil Comes off

an EarthWorks Machine

EarthWorks Environmental’s machines are mobile, flexible and fast, they clean and recycle the soil instead of sequestering it as toxic waste, and the process is much cheaper. A strong financial partner could acquire EarthWork’s Environmental and deploy their machines worldwide in a very short time. EarthWorks has had courtships with investors and partners where they would acquire the right to the patents, the equipment, and the company but to-date EarthWorks remains independent and growing their business the old fashioned way, by delivering jobs well done to a growing clientele. EarthWorks is actively marketing equipment and licenses to environmental contractors around the world.

EarthWorks mobile soil cleaning systems can be carted around a continent on rail cars and by truck. Wherever they go, clean earth is left in their wake, instead of toxic landfills. These machines and their many variations hold immense promise not only for the industrial nations, but throughout the developing world where their low cost and quick implementation make them especially attractive.

Processed Soil
Soil After the EarthWorks Process

Clean Enough to Use as Topsoil

EarthWorks offers soil cleaning solutions that are so much more cost-effective than traditional methods, that by implementing this more efficient solution, additional resources that would have been required for soil treatment can be redirected into the local communities. This altruism resonates with Brewer and is part of his criteria to find the right company to bring EarthWorks into the big leagues.

It isn’t every day an entrepreneur comes up with an innovation that proves to be both profitable and promising a better future for humanity. Equally unusual is the entrepreneur who, having the fortitude to prove their product’s worth against entrenched competition, is able to let go when the time is right, and sell their company to a partner with the financial network to introduce his product to the world. Ideally, companies like Brewer’s EarthWorks will soon find investor partners that add the resources and international partnerships he needs, and also share his altruistic vision of how to use his product to improve the lot of civilization.

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Posted in Cars, Landfills, Other, Recycling, Remediation, Science, Space, & Technology2 Comments

Recycling Myths: Smothered in Garbage vs. More Landfill Capacity than Ever

Kids Sort Trash
Lessons start early in life
all recycling is good…

Editor’s note: Recycling is not always the environmentally correct choice. Many items we recycle come from abundant raw materials and are inert and harmless when dumped. It costs more to recycle these than to bury the used and manufacture the new from scratch. Glass is a perfect example; plastic runs a close second. If throwing away glass and plastic causes us to ever run out of sand and oil byproducts we can mine the landfills and recycle them all at once – it would be cheaper and easier than perpetual recycling. There’s plenty of land for landfills, there’s very little hazard remaining in modern landfills, and the economics and the environment often favor using them. Trillions are squandered on needless recycling. So what myths prevent change?

Governments across the European Union and America have announced plans to require more recycling.

The European Union has ordered the citizens of the United Kingdom to roughly double their recycling rates by 2008, while the city governments of New York and Seattle have proposed mandatory expansions of existing recycling programs.

These moves are not based on new developments in resource conservation; instead they – like other mandatory recycling programs – rest on misconceptions of mythic proportions. This article discusses the most egregious of these myths.


Rolling Hillside
All of America’s garbage for the next century could
fit in just one landfill, only about 10 miles square

Since the 1980s, people repeatedly have claimed that the United States faces a landfill crisis. Former Vice President Al gore, for example, asserted we are “running out of ways to dispose of our waste in a manner that keeps it out of either sight or mind.”

This claim originated in the 1980s, when the waste disposal industry moved to using fewer but much larger landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency, the press, and other commentators focused on the falling number of landfills, rather than on their growing overall capacity, and concluded that we were running out of space. The EPA also underestimated the prospects for creating additional capacity.

In fact, the United States today has more landfill capacity than ever before. In 2001, the nation’s landfills could accommodate 18 years’ worth of rubbish, an amount 25% greater than a decade before. To be sure, there are a few places where capacity has shrunk. But the uneven distribution of available landfill space is no more important than is the uneven distribution of auto manufacturing: Trash is an interstate business, with 47 states exporting the stuff and 45 importing it. Indeed, the total land area needed to hold all of America’s garbage for the next century would be only about 10 miles square.


The claim that our trash might poison us is impossible to completely refute, because almost anything might pose a threat. But the EPA itself acknowledges that the risks to humans (and presumably plants and animals) from modern landfills are virtually nonexistent: According to the EPA’s own estimates, modern landfills can be expected to cause 5.7 cancer-related deaths over the next 300 years – just one death every 50 years. To put this in perspective, cancer kills over 560,000 people every year in the United States.

Older landfills do possess a potential for harm to the ecosystem and to humans, especially when built on wetlands or swamps, because pollutants can leach from them. When located on dry land, however, even old-style landfills generally pose minimal danger, in part because remarkably little biodegradation takes place in them.

Modern landfills eliminate essentially any potential for problems. Siting occurs away from groundwater supplies, and the landfills are built on a foundation of several feet of dense clay, covered with thick plastic liners. This layer is covered by several feet of gravel or sand. Any leachate is drained out via collection pipes and sent to municipal wastewater plants for treatment. Methane gas produced by biodegradation is drawn off by wells on site and burned or purified and sold.


United States Recycling Rates
Cardboard is recycled at three times the rate for glass;
the worth of glass recycling is debatable.

Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish produced. The average household in the united States generates one-third less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico, partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste. Turning a live chicken into a meal creates food waste. When chickens are processed commercially, the waste goes into marketable products (such as pet food), instead of into a landfill. Commercial processing of 1,000 chickens requires about 17 pounds of packaging, but it also recycles at least 2,000 pounds of by-products.

The gains from packaging have been growing over time, because companies have been reducing the weight of the packages they use. During the late 1970s and 1980s, although the number of packages entering landfills rose substantially, the total weight of those discards declined by 40 percent. Over the past 25 years the weights of individual packages have been reduced by amounts ranging from 30 percent (2-liter soft drink bottles) to 70 percent (plastic grocery sacks and trash bags). Even aluminum beverage cans weigh 40 percent less than they used to.


Numerous commentators contend that each state should achieve “trash independence” by disposing within its borders all of its rubbish. But, as with all voluntary trade, interstate trade in trash raises our wealth as a nation, perhaps by as much as $4 billion. Most of the increased wealth accrues to the citizens of areas importing trash.

Not only is the potential threat posed by modern landfills negligible, but transporting rubbish across state lines has no effect on the environmental impact of its disposal. Moving a ton of trash by truck is no more hazardous than moving a ton of any other commodity.


In fact, available stocks of most natural resources are growing rather than shrinking, but the reason is not recycling. Market prices are the best measure of natural resource scarcity. Rising prices imply that a resources is getting more scarce. Falling prices imply that it is becoming more plentiful. Applying this measure to oil, we find that over the past 125 years, oil has become no more scarce, despite our growing use of it. Reserves of other fossil fuels as well as other natural resources are also growing.

Thanks to innovation, we now produce about twice as much output per unit of energy as we did 50 years ago and five times as much as we did 200 years ago. Optical fiber carries 625 times more calls than the copper wire of 20 years ago, bridges are built with less steel, and automobile and truck engines consume less fuel per unit of work performed. The list goes on and on. Human innovation continues to increase the amount of resources at our command.


United States Environmental Protection Agecny Logo

Recycling is a manufacturing process with environmental impacts. Viewed across a wide spectrum of goods, recycling sometimes cuts pollution, but not always. The EPA has examined both virgin paper processing and recycled paper processing for toxic substances and found that toxins often are more prevalent in the recycling process.

Often the pollution associated with recycling shows up in unexpected ways. Curbside recycling, for example, requires that more trucks be used to collect the same amount of waste materials. Thus, Los Angeles has 800 rubbish trucks rather than 400, because of its curb-side recycling. This means more iron ore and coal mining, steel and rubber manufacturing, petroleum extraction and refining – and of course extra air pollution in the Los Angeles basin.


It is widely claimed that recycling “saves resources.” Proponants usually focus on savings of a specific resource, or they single out particularly successful examples such as the recycling of aluminum cans.

But using less of one resource generally means using more of other resources. Franklin Associates, a firm that consults on behalf of the EPA, has compared the costs per ton of handling rubbish through three methods: disposal into landfills (but with a voluntary drop-off or buy-back program, and an extensive curbside recycling program.

On average, extensive recycling is 35 percent more costly than conventional disposal, and basic curbside recycling is 55 percent more costly than conventional disposal. That is, curbside recycling uses far more resources. As one expert puts it, adding curbside recycling is “like moving from once-a-week garbage collection to twice a week.”

Book Cover


This view reflects ignorance about the extent of recycling in the private sector, which is as old as trash itself. Scavenging may, in fact, be the oldest profession. In the 19th century, people bid for the right to scavenge New York City’s rubbish, and Winslow Homer’s 1859 etching, Scene on the Back Bay Lands, reveals adults and children digging through the detritus of the Boston city dump. Rag dealers were a constant of American life until driven out of business by the federal Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939, which stigmatized products made of recycled wool and cotton. And long before state or local governments had even contemplated the word recycling, makers of steel, aluminum, and many other products were recycling manufacturing scraps, and some were even operating post-consumer drop-off centers.

Recycling is a long-practiced, productive, indeed essential, element of the market system. Informed, voluntary recycling conserves resources and raises our wealth. In sharp contrast, misleading educational programs encourage the waste of resources when they overstate the benefits of recycling. And mandatory recycling programs, in which people are compelled to do what they know is not sensible, routinely make society worse off. Market prices are sufficient to induce the trashman to come, and to make his burden bearable, and neither he no we can hope for any better than that.


Daniel K. Benjamin is professor of economics at Clemson University, a senior associate of the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), and a regular PERC columnist. This essay is adated from a longer paper, “Eight Great Myths of Recycling,” which is available from PERC.

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Posted in Air Pollution, Animals, Business & Economics, Causes, Coal, Conservation, Landfills, Other, Packaging, Recycling, Toxic Substances, Waste Disposal31 Comments

Ten Environmentalist Myths

The world needs environmentalists; everybody knows that.

But implementing environmentalist ideals has a price. Across a gamut of fundamental areas including energy, transportation and housing, environmentalist-influenced policies have slowed economic growth.

Verdant Countryside
Replanting the World’s Forests
Read “Reforesting Central America”

Eliminating pollution and protecting wildlife habitats are important goals, worthy of measured economic trade-offs, but many environmentalists have become extreme.

The following Environmentalist Myths, in which far too many environmentalists blindly believe, have, for non-environmentalists, stigmatized the very idea of environmentalism. Any environmentalist, whether they are extreme or mainstream, would do well to examine these assumptions. In the spirit of creating healthy discourse, from within the environmentalist camp, with the desire to promote deeper understanding and a broader movement; here we throw down the gauntlet. And for those readers who are ready to excommunicate EcoWorld from the environmentalist world, stay tuned for the Ten Capitalist Myths…

Myth #1
Being environmentally correct requires lower standards of living.

Not true. The idea that a sustainable and pollution-free lifestyle requires sacrifice is a myth. It is how we get to sustainable and pollution-free lifestyles, not getting there, which will determine whether or not sacrifice is required. Heavily regulated energy and water markets nurture cartels and discourage innovators. Narrowly defined regulatory approaches to controlling pollution are usually obsolete before the ink is dry; they do as much harm as good. It’s over-legislated “solutions” that cause economic misery and sacrifice, not true environmentalism.

Myth #2
Any good Environmentalist is a socialist.

Baloney. The precious bird of environmentalism has been flying for too long with one wing, the left one. No ideology can own the desire (or the ideas) to control pollution and use energy efficiently, just innovation, with true believers backed up by inventors and entrepreneurs. Government regulations and “takings” aren’t always bad, but they aren’t always good either. Sustainable business should mean perpetual profit as often as it means taxes and regulations. Whether or not socialists or capitalists claim moral high ground can vary, but the claim that any genuine environmentalist has to be a socialist is a myth.

Solar Collectors
Solar/Coal Hybrid Power
Read “Serious Megawatts”

Myth #3
Hydrogen and other renewable energy are the answer to our energy needs.

Maybe so, but for the forseeable future they are only part of the answer. Renewables (not including energy from dams) still provide less than 1% of the world’s energy, and cleaning up and improving the efficiency of our conventional energy infrastructure is a compelling alternative to renewables when choosing where to invest – both for financial and ecological returns. Burning fossil fuels more efficiently with virtually no pollution, either via huge gas turbines, modern diesel engines, or super-efficient hybrid engines, is still much cheaper and nearly as clean as using pure hydrogen. Fuel cells are still very expensive and they wear out quickly, especially when their hydrogen is extracted from fossil fuels, and extracting hydrogen from water requires vast amounts of electricity that must be produced somewhere. Hydrogen has interesting potential as an ultimate energy carrier, but must more persuasively demonstrate it can be competitive with super-efficient, virtually zero-polluting fossil fuel solutions. Should we continue to develop renewable energy? Yes we should, but we also need to find more efficient, cleaner ways to use non-renewable energy.

Cleaning Contaminated Soil
Cleaning Contaminated Soil
Read “Toxins into Topsoil”

Myth #4
We have to recycle everything.

No we don’t. Landfills in the U.S., strictly regulated and ultra-safe, can handle many decades of waste input at current levels, and there are countless additional areas that can be used for new landfills. Recycling is far less efficient than using existing landfills and building new ones. Landfills are at least as safe as other civil engineering necessities, such as power plants, harbors, and the like, and they are now set up to screen virtually all valuable or hazardous materials out of whatever they store. Recycling programs for glass and many other common recycling items consume far more energy and create far more pollution in their recycling process compared to the cost to inter the old in a landfill and manufacture replacements.

Myth #5
New housing developments must be limited to within existing cities.

Why? Private property is the foundation of free enterprise, a core American value. The constant war of Environmentalists against developers drives home prices artificially high, and homes become unaffordable unless built on lots barely big enough for the structure. There is nothing wrong with building more homes on the former farms, dairy farms or cattle ranches that typically surround urban areas; they are far from pristine already. Should there be reasonable community oversight over developers? Yes, but environmentalists want zero development outside of existing cities, which is totally unrealistic.

Myth #6
Natural Wilderness and Biodiversity are sacred.

No they aren’t, unfortunately. Using the discovery of some obscure insect or creature to prevent building a power plant, or a road, or homes, factories and cities is not always right. Europeans get along just fine without much pristine wilderness left in most of their continent. Having wilderness and biodiversity at all costs is a choice that societies make, it isn’t sacred and it has little to do with their well-being. Environmentalists are not wrong to want to preserve wilderness and wildlife, more should be preserved, but the idea we must protect all biodiversity at all costs is a myth.

Myth #7
We must have mass-transit.

Not really. If “mass transit” means more freeways, more cars, and more busses, then full speed ahead. Instead, unfortunately, current U.S. federal law mandates that “light-rail” and “carpool lane” options must always come first. This is a huge waste of taxpayer money, the unwitting result of a barely contested environmentalist myth that costs Americans billions to build slow trains that hardly anyone rides, and carpool lanes that are 75% empty during rush hour when extra lane capacity is most needed. Spend taxes on more freeways and more busses. Government funding should save trains for high-speed projects. Government regulations should focus on encouraging pollution-free cars, instead of mandating carpool lanes in a futile attempt to drive people out of cars altogether.

Mount Shasta in Distance
Water Markets Increase Supply
Read “What Shortage?”

Myth #8
There are going to be worldwide energy and water shortages.

Well if there are shortages, then environmentalists will share blame. Centrally planned mega-solutions and micro-managed regulations alike are the natural output of leftist environmentalist-influenced governments. Over-regulated water and energy markets can lead to shortages where no real shortage need exist. Water and energy will be more abundant and affordable when inventors and entrepreneurs can invent solutions without red-tape. Solutions to increasing available water range from small, decentralized rain-harvesting systems, to piping and underground storage systems built on a continental scale. These can co-exist in proper free-enterprise economies. The same holds for energy.

Myth #9
There is a population explosion.

Not anymore. Some human populations are still increasing alarmingly quickly, in diminishing pockets of the world. But population growth always slows when prosperity grows. Extreme environmentalists and their myths, by fighting against new homes and roads, by over-regulating energy and water systems, create economic misery instead of prosperity. If prosperity slowed population growth, there would be more money to fight pollution, and fewer people to pollute. In any case, all population projections promulgated by environmentalists have been way over the mark. The current projected peak human population, eight billion in about twenty years, is at the lowest point since serious projections began over 50 years ago. There aren’t too many humans for this earth to support, and there never will be.

Rishi Valley
Restoring Healthy Ecosystems
Read “Rishi Valley”

Myth #10
If we don’t make drastic changes right now the earth will become uninhabitable.

This is a tough one. Even if this is true, it can’t be proven, and making a statement like this is not likely to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced. And even if global warming, for example, were to cause the oceans to inundate low-lying coastal areas across the planet, it probably wouldn’t destroy the bulk of human civilization. Habitats, overall, would migrate northwards, with the tropical belt extending somewhat further up from the equator, and vast, viable summer agricultural regions opening up in the ample landmass of the upper northern hemisphere.

To say an icecap meltdown would be horribly disruptive is an understatement, but so adaptible are we, it would be a business opportunity alongside the human catastrophe. Moreover, the theory of global warming, and the related evidence, is substantial but not conclusive. Fundamental uncertainties remain in all models of global warming that render their predictive value nearly worthless. Should we stop polluting? Of course we should, and we will, but not because everyone is going to die tomorrow if we don’t.

Being capitalist and being environmentalist are not incompatible, if the assumptions of environmentalism are carefully challenged when determining public policy, and companies that use and process energy and water efficiently are rewarded in a less-regulated marketplace.

Does a myth-free environmentalist still want to save species, preserve wilderness, biodiversity? Yes, of course, even passionately, but with passion moderated by practical compromises.

Ed Ring is Editor and CEO of EcoWorld Inc., publisher of



—–Original Message—–

From: anonomous []

Sent: Friday, April 18, 2003 12:43 AM



Ed – I just read this piece you wrote. Not only is it fundamentally flawed, but it also demonstrates deep ignorance of the larger environmental arena.




—–Original Message—–

From: Aida []

Sent: Friday, April 18, 2003 8:42 AM


Subject: 10 Environmentalist Myths

Ed Ring:

What are your credentials?! You are completely wrong on all 10 of your “myths”. You are wrong in their defense and in the belief that some of the myths even exist at all! Have you even studied environmental science or economics??? Stop wasting internet space with such ignorance!


Sent: Monday, April 21, 2003 2:56 PM

Subject: RE: 10 Environmentalist Myths


You are welcome to submit a rebuttal to any of the points raised. Time permitting we would be happy to post any thoughtful replies. If you read other stories on EcoWorld you will see we care deeply about the environment. The story was intended to provoke comments, and it’s working.



—Original Message—–

From: Richard Jackson []

Sent: Saturday, May 03, 2003 8:32 PM


Subject: Myths

Dear Sir,

Your article ‘Ten Environmentalist Myths’ for supporters of capitalism who may be environmentally concerned provokes rebuttals on many levels. Time restraints only permit me to respond to your perspective briefly, but ‘myth six’ is extremely ‘provoking’ and warrants discussion.

Your comment that the natural wilderness and biodiversity are not sacred is only partially correct. For example, the Indigenous Australian people believed nature to be the centre of the universe rather than man! In line with this, it was thought that one had to work within the natural environment to ensure their future survival. The idolising of nature by these Aboriginal people is clearly portrayed in early rock art and obviously these views are sacred yet they are forced to live according to the dominating Western capitalist perspective which is based on your comments. In turn, therefore, not only is the natural wilderness and biodiversity sacred to many people who relate to the Indigenous Australian perspective, but the very idea that the natural wilderness and biodiversity is not sacred and can be used solely for human purpose is indeed itself a myth.

Yours Sincerely,

Richard Jackson

Media student

Swinburne University

Melbourne, Australia


—–Original Message—–

From: Ed Ring []

Sent: Sunday, May 04, 2003 4:55 PM

To: Richard Jackson

Subject: RE: Myths


I agree with your points completely except capitalists are capitalists, north, south, east, west. My point is that environmentalists HAVE to say nature is sacred, we have to admit it. It is that value that inspires environmentalists, but also has credibility with non-environmentalists. Telling someone who is unsympathetic to environmentalism that we have to stifle economic growth or we’ll all die is fearmongering and only breeds more opposition. Environmentalists have to appeal to the compassion of capitalists because when it comes to economic or ecologic arguments, totally unfettered capitalist development can hold its own. Assuming pollution is sufficiently mitigated, it’s not at all clear that if we carve the world into a giant industrial plantation with corporate crops and weedy species crowding out virtually 100% of the original ecosystems, that the world’s environment wouldn’t be perfectly habitable.

Environmentalists have to face the challenge of how do you allow rapid economic development for everyone, everywhere, without ending up with that? Capitalists create wealth, allowing many more options for society, including health, education, welfare, and more resources to protect the environment! The capitalist challenge to create wealth for everyone while not dominating cultures, creating pollution, and destroying wilderness and biodiversity is also not easy – but we need capitalism as much as we need environmentalism.

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Technology & Free Enterprise Come Together To Save the Environment

Jonathan Brewer
Jonathon Brewer
Earthworks Environmental Founder

Editor’s note: As often as not, technology and free-enterprise are forces that can save the environment. A perfect example is Jonathan Brewer’s company EarthWorks Environmental, with a technology that transforms polluted soil into soil clean enough to grow crops. But delivering a technological solution is only the beginning of the fight. Environmental entrepreneurs can provide the courage and the innovation, but their efforts must be complemented by diligent reporting in the press, and serious attention from investors, if their solution is to get the visibility and financial backing necessary to scale up to something that will truly make the world a better place. This is especially true if, as is the case with EarthWorks, the solution will disrupt an established industry.

ROSEVILLE, CALIFORNIA Jonathan Brewer likens his soil remediation technology to the Wright Brothers’ airplane back in the early 1900′s. Why? Because the machines he’s designed are the first of their kind and can go where no man has gone before. They are a creative piece of engineering, and because of these machines, Mr. Brewer’s company, EarthWorks Environmental (, looks like it has a strong future ahead of it. But still, like many examples in history of an established industry reluctant to take notice of the “seemingly simple”, Jonathan Brewer’s concepts encounter some reluctance from the soil treatment industry in general. While EarthWorks’ “METS” process, or Matrix Enhanced Treatment System, is ingenious and may possibly be the answer to much of the earth’s contaminated soil troubles, its adoption would cause major disruption to the existing multi-billion dollar soil remediation industry.

METS Rotor
METS Rotor

EarthWorks’ “METS” consists of SUV-sized soil crushing machines that are based on mining practice and technology. They are specially designed and engineered to be toxin-neutralizing powerhouses. A rotor inside each machine grinds soil into particles that are small enough to be effectively decontaminated. Various chemicals, bioreagents, bacteria, and enzymes are sprayed on the crushed contaminated soil particles as they travel through the machine, leaving the soil in a neutralized, natural, decontaminated state that, as Mr. Brewer says, “can be used in your garden.” The cleaning materials that are used to clean the soil are always bench tested first, and there is no threat of leakage from the machines. According to Mr. Brewer, “the only soil contaminants we can’t treat are radioactive uranium and plutonium isotopes.”

The company is based in California and has had several major contracts awarded for its onsite cleanup techniques, including, as the Sacramento Bee reports, “a $100 million federal contract given to a Foster Wheeler subsidiary to clean up US Navy and Marine installations, and a $400,000 National Institute of Health grant prospect.” EarthWorks’ machines are remotely controlled and compact enough to fit in standard 20-ft overseas shipping containers, which will help in EarthWorks’ hopes to export machines internationally in the near future.

2001 Most Innovative Product Award
Earthworks has garnered
honors for its products
(UC Davis Connect Award)

According to Brewer, the major factor holding these machines back from full integration into the marketplace is “comfort”. The environmental industry is “comfortable” with the current practice of landfilling hazardous and contaminated soil. Brewer says, “the current practice of landfilling doesn’t remedy the problem, it only moves it to be dealt with by future generations. With the METS technology, we now have the availability to permanently treat the soil, at lower cost than landfilling. It’s going to take some time for the industry to embrace this major change.”

How will this technology shake up the soil remediation industry? What often times happens where contaminated soil or hazardous waste is concerned is that it is shipped off to a landfill where it sits forever. These landfills have protections against contaminant leakage, providing the hazardous soil is within specified contamination limits. Earthworks’ ability to treat almost any contaminated soil on-site creates a great benefit for humanity and the earth. However, not every cleanup situation has proven optimal for Earthworks. A recent situation in a city in Sonoma county, California, shows that this type of echnology, no matter how wonderful, must battle with time and government regulations.

METS Processor
METS Processor
at a job site

In this case, in early 2002, EarthWorks won the bid to clean a contaminated sludge area in a competitive process. When interviewed, an official from the city’s Utilities Department, who requested EcoWorld to withhold his name and the name of his city from this report, described the case as consisting of “more than 10,000 tons of sludge and pond bottoms from oxidation ponds from old treatment plants.” The material required off site disposal with or without treatment. “The lead levels in this sludge,” he explained, “were above 5 parts per million, which is the STLC limit for municipal landfill disposal. When this was discovered, another company was hired in a competitive bidding process, which included both options for on site treatment and disposal, and also simply hauling and disposal as hazardous waste. The company was hired to mix the material with cement to bind the leachable lead into a non-soluble form, thus reducing STLC to non-hazardous levels and reducing total lead concentration by dilution, so the material could be shipped to a landfill as soon as possible.”

While the City Utilities Department official claims he is not opposed to onsite technology such as EarthWork’s manufactures, he was sure that the use of this technology was not best for this situation, especially because of time. He stated “onsite soil remediation technology is good for most materials and situations for which the cleanup process has no time constraints. We had to get this hazardous waste out of this area that was close to society, close to a creek and a river, in a location where the weather was unpredictable and unexpected rains could cause further leakage into the surrounding soil.” He explained that it was urgent to get the soil removed from the area, and shipping it to a Hazardous Waste landfill seemed the best option at the time, because it would have been quicker, and thus safer for the residents of the city. Also, using onsite technology would have created the need for time-consuming government decisions on regulation and oversight over how the soil cleanup would have been managed during the process, and how it would be monitored once the site was cleaned, which would have slowed the process further.

Besides confronting situations such as these time-sensitive ones, EarthWorks also faces in the soil remediation industry an entire network of jobs that have been secure for years for those people who transport soil to landfills and maintain the landfills. If EarthWorks’ onsite technology was used for all remediation sites and soil was cleaned up on-location, the need to transport to landfills would be greatly reduced. What would these people do? A lot of people would be without jobs, which is one of the reasons the soil remediation industry may not welcome the “new kid on the block” with open arms. When asked if he has any ideas to help overcome this problem, Mr. Brewer stated “transportation may still be needed by some sites that can’t afford the time or space for onsite cleanup. The soil could be transported somewhere else for treatment by METS machines, but treatment is always better than dumping!”

Overall it seems that EarthWorks may have a real goldmine on its hands, but certainly not before many industry obstacles have been overcome. These include the thousands of current jobs in trucking and hazardous waste landfills being lost or shifted, the urgent or time-constrained cleanup sites, government regulations and monitoring considerations, and just the overall acceptance of change. All of these are significant obstacles, but a process that cleans contaminated soil instead of sequestering it forever, while costing much less, ought to eventually prevail. It should be interesting to watch the EarthWorks’ METS process “take off” like the Wright Bros.’ plane so many years ago.

Earthworks’ Documented Field Results

The following projects were performed by EarthWorks Environmental, Inc. in the process of developing
the METS process for widespread commercial use. These projects were required to meet rigorous remediation standards established by regulatory authorities. The soil was treated as found, with no special preparation or enhancement.

In all cases, the treatment method involved a chemical/catalytic reaction to degrade the contaminant(s). In two cases, the soil was contaminated with more than one contaminant. Nevertheless, the soil was processed only one time in both cases.

Field Project #1: Field Project #2: Field Project #3:
Location: North
Central California
Coast California
Volume of soil: 250
Contamination type(s): Diesel
and MTBE
and diesel fuel
Elapsed time for project: 18
Nineteen days
Results from confirmation
Non-detect for diesel and BTEX
for all samples (sensitivity: parts- per-million
Non-detect for gasoline in all
samples (sensitivity at parts-per-million). Non-detect for MTBE in all
samples (sensitivity at parts-per-billion).
Non-detect for diesel fuel,
gasoline and BTEX (sensitivity at parts-per-million) for all samples.
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Free Market Environmental Protection

Futuristic Artwork by Tim Cantor
image – Tim Cantor


When the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first Earth Day arrived this past spring, there was much to feel good about. Significant strides have been made in protecting the earth’s biological envelope, and environmental awareness has surely been heightened. But there was also a sense of foreboding. In news comments on the occasion, came expressions of concern that pending legislative reforms such as compensation for regulatory takings, the imposition of limited cost-benefit and risk analyses, and revisions of the Clean Water Act world roll back 25 years of progress. Some even suggested that were it not for federal laws, there would be no environmental protection at all, implying that communities nationwide would stand idly by as their home territories became open sewers.

Though unreasonably costly and at times misguided, the threatened federal regulation has nonetheless provided a massive mechanism for protecting environmental quality. Yes, the air is cleaner than it was 25 years ago, more miles of rivers are swimmable, and lots of contaminated soil has been hauled from Superfund sites. But change is in the works. Even EPA has admitted that the priorities for action forced on the agency do not match the real needs for reducing environmental risks and improving air and water quality. Meanwhile memberships in national environmental groups seem to be peaking. By contrast, grass roots activities are burgeoning.

Surely there is room for improvement. We know that no other industrialized country has a Superfund program as costly and ineffective as ours. No other advanced economy relies as heavily on centralized command and control regulation, and practically every other industrialized nation is light years ahead in organizing river basin associations and similar decentralized organizations for managing water quality.

Today, the U.S. alone seems trapped in a regulatory pit that emphasizes uniform command-and-control regulation, penalties and confrontation, while paying scant attention to outcomes. In short, we rely on an antiquated, inflexible, top-down regulatory structure that was designed for a 1970 smokestack economy. Our command-and-control system was once justified by its ability to assemble and apply costly and scarce information. Yet we live in a new global age where microchips, low-cost information transmission and decentralized decision making rule the day.

Think of the changes that have transpired worldwide in the last quarter century while the basic regulatory blueprints hardly changed at all. When our basic environmental statutes were being designed, there were no FAX machines. There were no personal computers. There was no Internet for E-mail for giving instant information on polluter behavior. There was no CNN to inform the world of environmental calamities. Indeed, there was no way to monitor stack emissions, so that one could write emission trading contracts. There was no low-cost technology for reading tailpipe emissions from automobiles or for scanning the multiple dimensions of water quality. Smog was a mystery. And the notion of continuous monitoring of environmental use by satellites was just a gleam in some scientist´ s eye. In the early 1970s there was no International Standards Organization responding to marketplace demands for a higher quality workplace and giving private sector certification of environmental control. Today, all this and more is as routine as self-rising flour in grocery stores.

Now consider some of what we have learned about environmental hazards from 25 years experience in dealing with pollution. We now know that industrial discharge is not the source of most carcinogens and other environmental hazards. Indeed, we know that industry today ranks well below government operations and nonpoint sources as the major source of pollution. We have learned that the threat of acid rain is not critically associated with sulfur dioxide emissions, that life expectancies are increasing and that forests are flourishing.

Over the course of the last two decades, we have learned that the demand for environmental quality that comes with rising incomes is a powerful force for delivering environmental improvements, one that will not be denied. Factories, farms, municipal treatment plants, and federal government facilities cannot get by with haphazard treatment of the environment. CNN, Internet, E-mail and desk-top publishers will tell. And ordinary people, the ones we see each day in the market, will bring actions to protect their environment. In other words, there is no danger of seeing an unconstrained “race to bottom.” Now is the time, I believe, to replace costly smokestack regulation with the beneficial forces of the market.


Just what are these beneficial market forces? And what steps can we take to build strong linkages between environmental protection and the actions of millions of uncoordinated people? Is it possible for people to do the right thing without even thinking about environmental quality.? First off, the market process reflects social norms and rules of just conduct embodied in law and custom. Market action is driven by prices that emerge when some people own things that others want. For example, when investors have to give up something they value to obtain a site for building a factory, they are suddenly struck with a conservation ethic. Because they must pay, they carefully consider just how much land they really need. They shop. They search. They become creative. Markets and prices provide incentives. And if factory builders must pay the holders of environmental rights before building or polluting, or suffer the consequences, the investors will work even harder to avoid environmental harms. When environmental rights are protected, environmental protection becomes consistent with profit maximization.

Property rights´ definition and protection form the keystone to the market process. If factories and municipal treatment plants are told that they can pollute within certain limits if they have an EPA permit, then each time we get another certified plant we will get more polluted air and rivers. And if regulators tell industry official s how to design plants and they give their stamp of approval only when the specified technology is in place, then industry has no incentive to search for lower cost technologies and less damaging sites. If owners of downstream property lose their right to sue and stop polluters who damage their property, as our statutes do in some cases, industry incentives are blunted even further.

If cities and states are able to use political powers to locate incinerators and landfills without compensating neighboring property owners for damages, then environmental justice becomes an issue. If in the pursuit of protecting endangered species or sensitive wetlands, government can take property rights without paying, then property owners will have incentives to destroy endangered species and to plow under wetlands before they are observed. On the other hand, if property owners are paid for harboring endangered species and for converting land to public use, then wetlands and endangered species will be more secure. The incentives generated by markets, prices, and property rights can replace a large number of environmental policemen.


How might we apply these market principals to the existing statutory framework? First, we might attempt to modify the rules. With few exceptions, the legislative blueprints for regulating air and water pollution require command-and-control regulation that results in end-of-pipe, technology-based standards. Generally speaking, regulations focus on inputs, not outcomes. There is a fixation on point-sources — individual machines and in-plant processes. Hardly any attention is directed toward ecological systems, like river basins, complete aquifers and watersheds. The rules leave little room for innovation and can actually penalize firms that devote attention to unidentified but important sources of pollution while overlooking smaller but specified sources that are listed in the rules.

Put in the simplest terms, air and water pollution control from stationary sources is based on national or large geographic area standards that call for uniform approaches to be taken by broad categories of polluters. There are new-source/old-source standards that penalize expansion of plants and protect existing firms from competitive entry. There are stricter standards for particular regions. And there is little focus on overall outcomes. Indeed, after 25 years, we are just now becoming serious about the provision of extensive monitoring data that inform us about relative improvement.

How might we modify the existing blueprint? Allow me to offer a few suggestions.

1) Ditch command-and-control regulation in favor of performance standards. Identify specific goals to be achieved and allow managers to figure it out from there. Let flexibility and the desire to minimize cost become the guiding principals. Let the regulators focus on outcomes.

2) Eliminate new-source/old-source biases. Let competition work at all margins.

3) Establish a complete national emissions monitoring system and, by statute, provide a detailed annual report card that gives reliable data on the environment, by pollutant, river, major lake and stream.

4) Expand emissions and effluent trading to encompass all criteria pollutants. To facilitate emission trading between and among facilities with diverse ownership, provide baseline data and systems analysis so that all contracts can be written and enforced.

5) Require experiments with river and air-shed management systems where all rules for plants and other individual sources are relaxed and the river or air shed is given a measurable environmental goal to be achieved. Include point and nonpoint sources of pollution in the basinwide approach.

For hazardous waste, better known as superfund:

1) Make Superfund a public works project with, for example, a 75/25 percent local/federal sharing of cost, with the proportion based on the expected share of benefits.

2) Eliminate strict joint and several liability as basis for recovery of costs. Replace with joint and several liability only for polluters who violated laws at the time waste was created at a site.

3) Involve states and communities in establishing a triage system that based on intended use identifies sites that should be cleaned, those that should be paved or fenced and guarded, and those that should be monitored for potential cleanup.

4) Eliminate drinking water as the standard to be met from a cleaned Superfund site. Replace with ambient standards accepted by a population for their rivers and lakes.


So much for tinkering at the margins of smokestack regulation. Starting with a clean slate calls for careful examination of the fundamental role of government. We must ask 1) what is the purpose of government in the context? and 2) what level of government? Under a market approach, government has the responsibility of protecting citizens from the harm of others, protecting property rights, and reducing transaction costs among parties who seek to solve environmental problems. These duties relate to governing at all levels — the community, the state, the nation, and with regard to issues involving national boundaries. As to the level of government, we should consider the dimensions of the environmental problem being addressed, which is to say the extent of the harm that might be generated by a polluter or group of polluters.

A classification of environmental problems — activities that impose harm on other people, their property or things they prize — will surely yield a matching of some problems with each level of government. For example, a hazardous waste site that does not pose a risk to an aquifer is surely a local problem. One that contaminates a multistate aquifer will require another level of government. Air pollution that imposes costs within a state´ s boundaries is one thing; pollution that imposes costs across a region or across a national boundary is something else. Making such a list will carry us some distance in identifying the appropriate level of government for protecting property and reducing transaction costs among parties who seek to resolve pollution problems.

Decentralizing the problem breaks the national monopoly, generates a multitude of experiments, and allows citizens to vote with their feet. All evidence suggests that the costs of environmental improvements will fall, that those who have the greatest incentive to address environmental concerns will have a larger voice in determining outcomes, and that those who reap the benefits will bear the costs.

But what about the mechanisms that might be used? A review of the nation´ s history and consideration of the experience of other countries inform us of alternatives. For several hundred years, environmental rights were protected by the common law of nuisance and trespass. Cases involving water, air, odor and hazardous waste pollution were adjudicated in common law courts. Where many receivers of pollution were involved, citizens turned to public prosecutors and the public nuisance law. Where pollution crossed state lines, a state attorney general brought suit in behalf of citizens. Just prior to enactment of federal statutes, federal common law was emerging for protecting environmental rights among the states. To a large extent, that fertile field of control was snuffed out by legislation.

We cannot know how common law would have evolved in the absence of monopolized regulation. Perhaps specialized courts would have developed with special masters dealing with highly technical issues. Yet, like statute law, common law did not work perfectly, but the remedies were tough — injunction and damages. Of special importance, only those who could demonstrate harm or potential harm could bring action. A passerby had no standing to bring suit against a polluter whose activities were legitimate in the eyes of the courts and community members.

The common law process has something else to recommend it. It is impossible for a special interest to lobby all common law judges and obtain uniform rulings across the entire country. Put differently, it is very costly to seek rents through the courtroom.

But does common law really work? Today, practically all of the freshwater fish in the United Kingdom are owned by private parties, and have been for generations. The property of the angling clubs is protected by common law. If a polluter, be it a city, and industry or government enterprise, damages a fishery, the angling clubs brought suit. In the last 20 years, some 2,000 suits have been brought. Five have been lost. The result: The rivers of England are clean, in some cases cleaner than drinking water standards require. Market forces can protect water quality.

Prior to the formation of EPA, multistate compacts and commissions were at work dealing with water and air pollution. Ordinary people with good sense recognized that dimensions of environmental problems did not necessarily coincide with the dimensions of existing political bodies. The Ohio river basin commission, which included the states of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, was one of the better known operating systems. Through the joint effort of several states, the Ohio river was cleaned, continuously monitored and managed. At the time of EPA´ s founding, there were discussions underway to expand the Ohio river system to include states that bordered the Tennessee River. Quite possibly, river basin associations and multistate compacts would have eventually encompassed all major rivers. Federal legislation ended all that.

Today, in France every major river, their tributaries and coastal zones are managed as six systems with independent governing bodies that work to manage discharges to and withdrawals from all bodies of water. Major rivers in Germany, Scotland and Australia are similarly managed. Efforts are underway in Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil and Canada to develop similar approaches. There is no command-and-control. Water users are given performance standards to meet. In some cases, discharge and withdrawal fees are imposed. In Australia, pollution rights are traded to minimize the cost of controlling salt infusion.

One such experiment is now operating in the U.S., just one. It encompasses North Carolina´ s Tar River where point and nonpoint dischargers are working together in a river basin association. EPA´ s command-and-control regulations are relaxed. As a result, the Pamlico Sound, the receiver of waters from the Tar, is recovering. Costs are reduced dramatically by members of the association.

A review of history and current experience suggests the following:

1) Levels of governmental control and assistance should match the dimensions of the environmental problem being addressed. In some cases, new governing bodies will need to be developed. Regional compacts will be needed. Enabling legislation that forms river basin associations may be required. The national government should focus its attention on environmental problems that are truly national in scope. In all such cases, the national government should focus only on setting performance standards, enforcing those standards, and reporting on progress. There should be no command-and-control regulation for stationary pollution sources.

2) States should be empowered to manage environmental quality within their boundaries with the means and instruments not specified. Multistate participation and river basin associations should be assisted by the national government. States should be left free to invigorate common law remedies or any other control instrument they desire. The emphasis should be on outcomes, not inputs.

3) When the federal government regulates, as in the case of air pollution that affects several states or in the case of mobile sources, the regulatory agency should be required to justify all actions on the basis of scientifically based risk assessment and cost effectiveness. The regulatory agency should be required to report annually on the status of each action taken, its justification, and measured effects.

4) The national government should strengthen its research and development activities and make its expertise available to other governing bodies on a fee basis. The national government should strengthen its role in monitoring environmental quality and regularly provide scientific evidence on the condition of the environment.

There is a role for government in protecting environmental rights and in protecting people from environmental harm. As mentioned here, it is a role that supports property rights, markets and competition. Until now, too much attention has been focused on procedures, process, inputs and on criminalizing the innocent behavior of citizens. As a people, we have chosen a high cost, low result route, and we have learned a lot. Indeed, we should know more about environmental regulation than any other people on the face of the earth. Now is the time to rethink what we are doing. to learn from our own experience and that of others, and to make the 21st century a time when we can truly take the environment seriously.

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