Ozone regulations…on the Real World

This morning many of us woke up to headlines on the Obama administration’s decision to pull back proposed new standards for ozone levels. An example of such news coverage? Juliet Eilperin’s signature-thoughtful piece in this morning’s Washington Post.

The new EPA proposals would have compelled states and communities across the nation to reduce air pollution levels or face penalties. One practical implication would be a chilling effect on local- and state-level permitting for new manufacturing facilities, etc., at a time when the country desperately needs job creation.

The reaction? To those following these matters and today’s way of doing politics – predictable. Environmental groups had been sure of their ground. Expecting the Obama administration to press forward with the new, more-stringent regulations, they had prepared supportive media statements for quick release. Instead, they had to scramble to express their chagrin at the actual outcome. They feel blind-sided, betrayed.

So those on the “business” or “anti-government-interference” side of the spectrum must be pleased, right?

Wrong. They show little if any sign of being mollified. Instead they’re calling attention to existing regulations, still on the books, which they characterize as strangling American industry. So… no support from that quarter either. Just another business day at the White House…making decisions to move the country forward and making everyone unhappier in the process. Why would anyone want the job?

Eilperin quoted some federal officials to the effect that economic considerations played no role in the administration decision. Likely we will never know all the details of the behind-the-scenes thought process that led to the choice. Life is complicated! At this level – on these subjects – it’s all about shades of grey.

This decision is today’s news, and making the headlines here…but it only illustrates a larger and more profound challenge. Every day, not just in the United States, but worldwide, governments, businesses, and individuals – all seven billion of us – are either deliberately or unthinkingly making choices that try to balance our relationship with the real world as resource, victim, and threat. If we want to live sustainably we must make all these myriad decisions, and the actions they trigger, in a way that simultaneously, everywhere, locally, and globally, garners the food, energy, and water (as well as the jobs, transportation, shelter, etc., etc.) we need to keep moving forward, while maintaining the quality of the environment, ecosystem services, and while not adding any new vulnerability to natural hazards.

That’s the fundamental challenge of Living on the Real World – the focus of this blog.

In the ultimate sense (forgive a pointy-headed scientific digression here), physics has some bad news for humans.  The so-called second law of thermodynamics states rather unequivocally that the disorder of all closed physical systems always increases…that is, all systems (e.g., the world and its peoples and creatures and things) “wind down.” All resource acquisition comes at an environmental cost of some kind. Want copper? Iron? Bauxite? Selenium? You’re going to have to scrape a big hole in the ground, kick up some dust, pollute a stream or two. All environmental preservation ties up financial (and other) resources. Protect that snail darter, or the spotted owl, or porpoises or turtles? Prepare to spend some serious coin. Want to protect yourself from the disruption of all those hurricanes and floods? Well, it’ll cost you. You’ll have to tolerate higher electrical bills (to pay for sturdier transmission lines and more emergency response equipment and crews), higher costs for home and building construction, for bridges and highways and other transportation infrastructure, and so on. [Note: if you do support such costs, you’ll be putting a lot of people to work – remember that jobs problem that was today’s starting point? And you’ll be minimizing future disruption in the outyears.]

So – according to physics – the day of reckoning is coming.

That said, it’s possible to delay that day…to push it further back. And the good news is…not by a little, but a lot.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. Let’s start with the wrong way. The wrong way is to use our energy and thought to sweep the problem under the rug, to hide it from view. Trouble is, the problem doesn’t stay hidden long, and when it resurfaces, it’s worse. Here are two examples. Take acid rain. Soon after the industrial revolution got cranked up, maybe a hundred years ago, we realized that the effluent from smokestacks was killing vegetation in the immediate vicinity. Our solution in those days? Build higher stacks! Get the pollution above the boundary layer, where contact with the ground was immediate and local, and pump it into the higher air, where it could diffuse through a larger volume. For decades, it seemed this was working like a charm. But then, we started to notice the same problems we’d seen locally, but now on a greatly expanded regional basis. By that time, here in the United States, damage to forests and streams pretty much pervaded the entire northeast.

A second example. That mineral extraction. A visual blight locally? Let’s export the problem to other countries, where we don’t have to look at it. Today much such mining occurs in Australia, in Indonesia, in Africa, in South America…outside U.S. view. Our local U.S. environment has improved. And we’re getting cheap resources and finished products from around the world. We’re patting ourselves on the back. And as consumers we’re loving it. But environmental problems are mounting across Africa, China, and elsewhere. And we’re losing jobs to those portions of the world in part because they’re not addressing their environmental problems. What’s coming? An increasing need to address these issues on an international scale. Are you expecting that to be easy? Do you think trade barriers provide the full answer?


So, then, what’s the right way?

Innovation. Innovation that conserves resources (the switch from incandescent to LED light looks to be an example; conversion to electrical vehicles; drip irrigation – substitute or add your favorite). Innovation that substitutes renewable resources for their nonrenewable counterparts. New approaches to preservation of environment, ecosystems, biodiversity and landscapes – such as more efficient urban living. New methods of construction and approaches to land use that reduce vulnerability to hazards. And innovation in the policy arena – identifying policies and incentives that minimize regulatory burden while reducing the tradeoffs that today plague our separate efforts to acquire resources, reduce pollution, and minimize hazard risk.

Innovation is not a cure…any more than insulin injections represent a cure for diabetes. But it does buy time.

It also builds our skills at innovation. It will help make us more innovative in the future. And who knows? With that new level of knowledge and understanding to build on as a starting point, subsequent generations will likely find additional ways to buy even more time for themselves and those who follow.

Continuing innovation. The wild card improving our ability to live on the real world. But it too requires investment. And I don’t mean just dollars, or Euros, or yuan. I mean an investment in educating our youth, and building cultural values fostering sustainable real-world living. Investments of the type that will prompt future generations to choose careers in this kind of innovation, as opposed to innovation in financial instruments that merely milk existing wealth, or innovation in law that merely leads to transfer of existing wealth from one person’s pocket to another’s.

Finally, continuing innovation shouldn’t be, can’t be, a spectator sport. It should be one of our cultural values. In fact, it is already a cultural value. We all love the new. We just need to get more in touch with that side of our fundamental nature. We need to recognize it. Accent it. And distinguish true innovation from mere fad.

In the meantime, let’s cut our decisionmakers some slack as they are forced to make nasty choices. Let’s come alongside and help them, not carp at them. We’re all in this together.

Speaking of together, are you in the United States? Enjoy the Labor Day weekend.

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