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Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future (1997)

Chapter: Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future

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Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
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THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE HUMAN FUTURE

For human societies to achieve a productive, healthful, and sustainable relationship with the natural world, the public and private sectors must make environmental considerations an integral part of decision making.

Introduction

Environmental awareness among the public and policymakers has been growing since the 1960s, when it became widely recognized that human activities were having harmful and large-scale effects on the environment. Scientific and engineering research is also playing an increasing role in both understanding and protecting the environment. Research has demonstrated the importance of the environment to human health and well-being as well as the economic, social, and aesthetic harm that can stem from poor environmental practices. Research has suggested ways to curb harmful practices without incurring excessive costs. For example, scientific and engineering research has provided cost-effective ways to reduce the pollution in air and water in the United States; has demonstrated the importance of areas, such as wetlands, that were once considered of little value to human societies; and has helped to preserve natural ecosystems and the species that inhabit them.

Several themes are dominant in the large array of Academy-complex reports that discuss environmental issues, whether the issues are related to environmental pollution, ecology, sustainable development, or resource use. These themes include:

  • Better assessment, management, and communication of risks.

  • Using science to strengthen environmental policies.

  • Developing better scientific and technical understanding for policymaking.

  • Setting appropriate goals and priorities for environmental-cleanup initiatives.

  • Pricing goods and services to reflect total societal costs, including environmental consequences.

  • Using adaptive management to promote effective interaction between managers and scientists.

  • Moving toward a sustainable relationship with the natural world.

Several key objectives set forth in Academy-complex reports can help guide the development and implementation of public policies that affect the environment. These diverse objectives, which are described in more depth in the remainder of this report, include the following:

  • Provide risk estimates that include not only singlepoint estimates of risk, but also the associated sources and magnitudes of uncertainty.

Science and Policy: The Destruction of the Ozone Layer

In the early 1970s, researchers began to consider the fate in the atmosphere of a particular group of chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that have been widely used as refrigerants and in industry. These scientists demonstrated that, when these chemicals rise high into the stratosphere, they react with sunlight to produce chemical radicals that cause the destruction of ozone molecules. This ozone in the stratosphere shields the earth’s surface from the harmful ultraviolet light of the sun. In 1984, researchers measured drastic reductions in stratospheric ozone over Antarctica in early spring, which could be linked directly to the catalytic action of CFCs.

Since 1987, more than 150 countries have signed a series of international agreements, beginning with the Montreal Protocol, that call for a phased reduction in the manufacture and eventual release of CFCs. Although depletion of stratospheric ozone will continue for several decades, the ozone layer is expected to recover eventually, and the potential consequences will be much less severe than they would have been had research not led to the early recognition of the problem.

For more information:

  • The Ozone Depletion Phenomenon, National Academy of Sciences, 1996

Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
  • Build the organizational capability to involve affected and interested parties in the risk-assessment process.

  • Protect a core amount of “survival habitat” as a short-term interim measure without reference to economic impact when a species is listed as endangered.

  • Use a comprehensive approach to preserve species, such as the Pacific salmon, in which scientific and technical information is used to accommodate the goal of preservation to the inevitable presence of human activities.

  • Gain a better understanding of the relationship between diet and cancer by improving testing methods, expanding epidemiological studies, and developing more data on what people eat.

  • Encourage the public and private sectors to cooperate in gathering, analyzing, understanding, and maintaining scientific information on the nation’s biological resources.

  • Consider the development of a unified national process of hazardous-waste site analysis to replace the current multiplicity of approaches.

  • Study in detail the full social-cost pricing of energy with a goal of gradually introducing such a system.

  • Consider fuel-price increases as an alternative or a supplement to vehicle-efficiency regulation and experiment with the application of pricing measures to reduce traffic congestion.

  • Provide incentives to industry to develop environmentally advantageous technologies.

  • Pursue arrangements for monitoring and assessing environmental conditions and their economic implications.

  • Take a systemwide perspective to environmental issues, so that the earth’s resources can be used in a sustainable manner.

The reports drawn on in the discussion below have been selected from a much larger number of Academy-complex reports on environmental subjects to illustrate and elaborate on these themes and objectives.

Better Assessment, Management, and Communication of Risks Is Needed

A series of reports from the Academy complex have helped to improve the scientific integrity of risk assessment and risk management in both the public and private sectors. In 1983, the National Research Council report Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process established many of the definitions and procedures used today to assess environmental risks to human health.

The federal government’s application of the principles laid out in the 1983 report has been fundamentally sound. But the government needs to do a better job of laying out the scientific and policy bases for its decisions. For example, when a government agency presents estimates of risk to government officials and the public, it should give not only a single-point estimate of risk, but also the associated sources and magnitudes of uncertainty. (A-1)

In the past, government often has taken a relatively narrow view of risk assessment, seeing it as a technical process resulting in information that is to be translated for the use of decision-makers and the public. In fact, risk analysis needs to be a combination of analysis and deliberation that is driven by the need to make decisions and solve problems. Risk assessment needs to include all interested and affected parties from the beginning of the process, and those parties need to feel that they have been appropriately involved and informed to the extent possible with available knowledge.

Federal agencies need to build the organizational capability to involve affected and interested parties in the risk-assessment process. (A-2) For example, agencies need to improve coordination between the entities that handle scientific analysis and the entities that interact with outside parties. Agencies also need to develop mechanisms that encourage feedback on their procedures, so that they can be improved.

Implementing a broader approach to risk assessment might involve higher initial costs and more time for some decisions, but it also offers the potential for decisions that are more widely understood and accepted. A wider acceptance might reduce the costs that often result today from challenges to decisions and from delays in implementing them.

Managing risks successfully also depends on effective two-way communication between scientists, public officials, and citizens. The main role of public officials in designing messages about risk is to inform decision-makers, whether they are industry managers, concerned citizens, or government officials. The risk-communication process will be successful to the extent that it improves the base of accurate information that decision-makers use and satisfies them that they are adequately informed to the extent of available knowledge. That requires setting realistic goals for the process, safeguarding openness and balance, relying on expertise about the risks and the communication process,

Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×

relating messages to the audiences’ perspectives, and ensuring that the information is complete.

For more information on the role of science in assessing and managing risks:

  • A-1. Science and judgment in Risk Assessment, Committee on Risk Assessment of Hazardous Air Pollutants, 1994

  • A-2. Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society, Committee on Risk Characterization, 1996

Science Should Underlie Our Environmental Policies

Environmental policies are influenced by economic, social, and political forces. To ensure that the execution of these policies protects human health and ecosystems effectively and efficiently, scientific and technical information needs to be an integral consideration from the earliest stages of policymaking.

The history of wetlands in the United States offers a good example of the role that science can play in environmental management. Throughout much of American history, wetlands have been viewed both as an unproductive resource and a liability, so government policies have encouraged the filling and draining of wetlands to provide land for cities, homes, and agricultural fields. But research has demonstrated that areas left as wetlands perform many valuable functions for society. They provide habitat for waterfowl and other species, absorb floodwaters, and maintain the quality of surface water and groundwater by filtering it.

Conflicts between those who desire to convert wetlands to other purposes and those who want to preserve wetlands have focused attention on how wetlands are defined. This conflict has been exacerbated by the fact that different government agencies use different definitions to delineate wetlands. For example, definitions of wetlands have been proposed that would permit much greater extents of conversion of wetlands for development.

Although judgment and policy will always play a role in identifying the extent of wetlands protection needed, scientific understanding of wetlands is sufficient to establish a reference definition by which the definitions and actions of government agencies can be judged. (B-1) Establishing a reference definition in legislation would improve the objectivity, efficiency, consistency, and credibility of wetlands identification. It also could provide the basis for consolidating all regulatory functions in a single federal agency, which would greatly facilitate the coordination of wetlands regulation. The result could be less controversy over wetlands regulation and wiser protection of wetlands.

Scientific information can also make environmental policies that protect endangered species more effective and consistent. Developments in conservation biology, population genetics, and ecological theory over the last two decades have greatly increased our understanding of the risks to species. In particular, we now know the extent to which protecting species in the wild requires conserving habitats. When a species is listed as endangered, a core amount of “survival habitat” should be protected—without reference to economic impact—as a short-term interim measure. (B-2) The adoption of a required recovery plan for the species would then specify the habitat necessary for longer-term survival. Changes in the Endangered Species Act that reflect this and other new understandings of how to protect threatened species could improve the act’s effectiveness and reduce the conflicts over human use of resources that it has engendered.

In some cases, research has pointed to environmental policies that are flawed or even counterproductive because of their failure to incorporate available scientific and technical information. For example, the national efforts to achieve ambient-air quality standards for ozone in the lower atmosphere (tropospheric ozone)—which when it builds up at ground level in urban areas can cause serious health problems—have been misdirected for more than two decades and have therefore largely failed. The principal measure of tropospheric ozone trends is unreliable, and both data on the problem and approaches to solving it have serious flaws. Government agencies need to review and revise their methods for tracking tropospheric ozone formation. (B-3) The Environmental Protection Agency has begun, through participation in the North American Research Strategy for Tropospheric Ozone (NARSTO) program, to collect many of the types of environmental data called for in the National Research Council’s ozone report. The NARSTO program is in its early phases, and a new Research Council committee will assess the NARSTO program’s early implementation. The committee will remain active for at least four years to provide periodic advice to NARSTO. Efforts in this field need to continue so that scientific understanding can be incorporated into public policy.

A similar case in which scientific understanding of an

Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×

environmental problem has yet to be incorporated into policy involves the decreased visibility in US parks and wilderness areas. Today, the average visual range in much of the western United States is one-half to two-thirds of what it would be without pollution from human sources; in the eastern United States, the visual range is as little as one-fifth. Current policies focus on individual polluters, such as nearby power plants. But much of the haze caused by pollution comes from automobiles, factories, and other sources spread over hundreds of miles. To reduce the haze caused by pollution, policymakers must adopt a wider-ranging, regional approach to air pollution. (B-4) Scientific knowledge and control technologies are now adequate to meet the visibility objectives that have been laid out in legislation.

Many of the environmental issues in which scientific information is pivotal are exceedingly complex, involving an intricate interplay of scientific, economic, and social factors. Consider the plight of the Pacific salmon. Pacific salmon have disappeared from about 40% of their historical breeding ranges in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California over the last century, and many remaining populations are severely reduced. Because of their unusual anadromous life-cycle— salmon are born in clear cold streams, migrate to the ocean and grow there, and then travel back to spawn in the streams where they hatched—the salmon problem encompasses a broad range of issues, including agriculture, dams, forestry, grazing, hatcheries, fishing, and urbanization. To preserve the Pacific salmon, a comprehensive approach is needed that uses scientific and technical information to accommodate the goal of preservation in the inevitable presence of human activities. (B-5) For example, hatchery planning, management, and operations need to undergo a fundamental reorientation with the overall goal of rebuilding wild salmon populations by promoting genetic diversity. Fishery management, better ways to transport salmon around dams, and cooperative agreements that encompass entire waterway systems are all needed if salmon populations are to recover.

Another concern is the management of the world’s marine fisheries. Many fish stocks in US waters are less abundant than before 1976, when legislation establishing a 200-mile fisheries conservation zone was enacted. Many fisheries are in decline because they are being overexploited. Sustaining fish catches over the long term requires improved understanding of marine ecosystems; improved data collection, analysis, and dissemination; and more conservative management. (C-4)

Finally, the use of scientific and technical information gathered after a program has been put into place can be critical in the effectiveness of the program. The Glen Canyon environmental studies conducted between 1983 and 1995 led to major changes in the operation of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River above Grand Canyon. Continuing review of these studies by a National Research Council committee helped to broaden them to include the full ecosystems of the areas affected by the dam. (B-6) This broadening has led to means for operating the Glen Canyon Dam that are environmentally more advantageous. The willingness of a government agency charged with managing a complex environmental problem to accept and incorporate external review point to more effective ways to address future environmental problems.

For more information on the use of science in developing environmental policies:

  • B-1. Wetlands: Characteristics and Boundaries, Committee on Characterization of Wetlands, 1995

  • B-2. Science and the Endangered Species Act, Committee on Scientific Issues in the Endangered Species Act, 1995

  • B-3. Rethinking the Ozone Problem in Urban and Regional Air Pollution, Committee on Tropospheric Ozone Formation and Measurement, 1991

  • B-4. Protecting Visibility in National Parks and Wilderness Areas, Committee on Haze in National Parks and Wilderness Areas, 1993

  • B-5. Upstream: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest, Committee on Protection and Management of Pacific Northwest Anadromous Salmonids, 1995

  • B-6. River Resource Management in the Grand Canyon, Committee to Review the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies, 1996

Better Scientific and Technical Understanding Is Required for Policymaking

In many instances, the scientific and technical information available today is inadequate to support complete and unambiguous solutions to complex environmental problems. In such cases, the value judgments inherent in all environmental policies become especially prominent. The testing of chemicals for carcinogenicity is one situation in which the lack of scientific information hampers policymaking. Different government agencies apply different regulatory mechanisms to the problem, but all use measures of carcinogenicity encumbered by uncertainties. For example, a common way to test for carcinogenicity is to feed large amounts of a single chemical to rodents. But human diets consist of small amounts of many chemicals, some of which can contribute to cancers and some of which protect against them. More studies of humans are needed to improve understanding of

Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×

Disposing of Radioactive Wastes

The disposal of radioactive wastes provides a vivid illustration of both the relevance and the limitations of scientific and technical knowledge on highly controversial public issues. The state of California has been considering the Ward Valley site in the eastern Mojave Desert for the disposal of low-level radioactive wastes. Studies of the site have concluded that groundwater contamination at the site is highly unlikely. However, concerns by some segments of the public have not been allayed, and development of the site is currently halted.

The scientific and political challenges are even greater in considering the disposal of long-lived high-level radioactive wastes at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. It is scientifically feasible to assess waste isolation at the site on the time scale of the geologic stability of the area, which exceeds 1 million years for Yucca Mountain. However, there is no scientific basis for predicting the behavior of individual humans thousands of years into the future. Specifying future scenarios for evaluating potential human risk therefore requires a policy rather than a scientific decision.

For more information:

  • Ward Valley: An Examination of Seven Issues in Earth Sciences and Ecology, Committee to Review Specific Scientific and Technical Safety Issues Related to the Ward Valley, California, Low-Level Radioactive Waste Site, 1995

  • Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards, Committee on Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards, 1995

the relationship between the available animal data and human diets. Improved testing methods, expanded epidemiological studies, and more data on the effects of diet on humans are needed to gain a better understanding of how diet can contribute to cancer. (C-1)

A lack of scientific information also hampers the management of rangelands in the United States. The absence of a consistently defined standard for the health of rangeland ecosystems seriously limits current efforts to assess the status of US rangelands. Agencies should evaluate rangeland health by three criteria: the stability of soils and watersheds, the integrity of nutrient cycles and energy flows, and the functioning of ecological processes that enable rangelands to recover from damage. (C-2) Research that produces more knowledge about these factors would lead to better decisions about how to protect the ecological health of rangelands. As discussed earlier, even less well understood than the management of rangeland is the management of the world’s marine fisheries.

The value of scientific information in forming environmental policies is the main impetus for efforts to gather data on the nation’s plant and animal life. Despite many laws and policies to protect animals and plants from extinction, the nation’s biological diversity is in danger of decline. That is partly because of a lack of basic knowledge about the number of species in the United States, the effect of human activities on ecosystems, and interrelationships among species. The public and private sectors should cooperate in a program to gather, analyze, understand, and maintain scientific information on the nation’s biological resources. (C-3) Such a program could identify trends while management options are still available, evaluate the effectiveness of such options, and direct attention to areas where problems are most likely to develop in the near future, such as urban-expansion zones, estuaries, rivers, and areas with intensive fishing, logging, or mining activity. By pooling the efforts of the public and private sectors and by disseminating information widely, such a program could help to prevent costly confrontations over plant and animal life.

For more information on improving scientific understanding of environmental issues:

  • C-1. Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet: A Comparison of Naturally Occurring and Synthetic Substances, Committee on Comparative Toxicity of Naturally Occurring Carcinogens, 1996

  • C-2. Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands, Committee on Rangeland Classification, 1994

  • C-3. A Biological Survey for the Nation, Committee on the Formation of the National Biological Survey, 1993

Appropriate Goals and Priorities Must Be Set for Environmental-Cleanup Initiatives

Scientific and technical information is critical for setting priorities and goals for environmental-cleanup initiatives. For example, an estimated 300,000–400,000 sites across the country have groundwater and soil contamination. These sites include thousands of underground storage tanks at gas stations as well as the massive nuclear-weapons production facility at Hanford, Washington. Costs of cleaning up contaminated groundwater sites are estimated to be as high as $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Federal and state laws require that these sites be restored to meet drinking-water standards. Although current technology can meet that objective at a portion of the nation’s contaminated ground-

Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×

water sites, total cleanup at many sites is not now feasible.

The government should set cleanup goals for contaminated groundwater at each site based on the hydrogeology of the site, the types of contaminants disposed of, and the state of technology. (D-1) At sites where cleanup is not now feasible, research is needed to determine techniques that would be appropriate.

Scientific and technical information is only one of many factors that must be considered in setting goals for environmental action. In particular, public participation in risk assessment, risk management, and the projected cost of cleanup can be critical in developing and gaining public acceptance of environmental initiatives. (D-2) Several key points from a review of the Department of Energy’s efforts to clean up the nation’s nuclear-weapons sites emphasize public participation:

  • Lack of trust in government agencies or officials can be a major impediment to reaching consensus—not only on the type and degree of remediation needed, but also on the process used to make decisions.

  • The multiple concerned parties need to be involved throughout the whole process, beginning with planning, not just in the review of the results.

  • Because values and philosophical views differ, an open, clear, equitable, and inclusive process is essential.

  • Although more information is always preferable to less information, the absence of complete information should not be an excuse for a lack of progress.

The process used by the federal agencies to set environmental goals—for example, choosing sites for remediation— varies widely from agency to agency. A single national process would provide a better basis for decisions about setting goals, about how much cleanup or containment should be undertaken at each site, when it should occur, and the cost. The federal government should consider the development of a unified national process of hazardous-waste site analysis to replace the current multiplicity of approaches. (D-3) Such a system would lead to greater consultation and collaboration among agencies and to increased consistency in scientific assessments and decision-making. It would also be more objective, more equitable, and more open to public scrutiny.

For more information on establishing environmental goals:

  • D-1. Alternatives for Ground Water Cleanup, Committee on Ground Water Cleanup Alternatives, 1994

  • D-2. Building Consensus Through Risk Assessment and Management of the Department of Energy’s Environmental Remediation Program, Committee to Review Risk Management in the DOE’s Environmental Remediation Program, 1994

  • D-3. Ranking Hazardous Waste Sites for Remedial Action, Committee on Remedial Action Priorities for Hazardous Waste Sites, 1994

The Pricing of Goods and Services Should Reflect Total Social Costs, Including Environmental Consequences

The social sciences can help to improve the quality of the nation’s environmental policies. Economics research, for example, has explored the total costs of particular goods and services, including the environmental costs, and has suggested ways of incorporating the costs into the prices that people pay for goods and services.

A leading example of an environmental concern where market incentives could be useful is global climate change. Although great uncertainties regarding the causes and impacts of global warming remain, government could use market incentives in a number of ways to reduce green-house-gas emissions and simultaneously achieve other socially desirable goals. If energy were priced at its full social cost—which means setting the price of each form of energy at a cost necessary to recoup all societal costs not normally assessed in present pricing mechanisms—wasteful uses of energy could be curtailed. However, the practical implementation of such pricing system entails technical and political difficulties, including issues of world competitiveness. The federal government should study in detail the full social-cost pricing of energy with a goal of gradually introducing such a system. (E-1) Including all social, environmental, and other costs in energy prices would provide consumers and producers with the appropriate information for deciding about fuel mix, new investments, and research and development.

At the same time, continued regulation is important in controlling some potential contributors to global change, such as the CFCs and halocarbons that are being phased out to reduce the threat to stratospheric ozone.

When market signals conflict with environmental objectives, policies designed to achieve those objectives tend to be ineffective. An example is the existing system for setting fuel-economy standards, which requires that domestically produced and imported vehicles sold by each manu-

Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×

facturer achieve a specified average fuel economy. Under the current regime of low fuel prices, consumers have relatively limited interest in purchasing—and manufacturers in producing—cars and light trucks with high fuel economy. If gains in fuel economy are obtained in new vehicles at the expense of other attributes that consumers value, consumers might retain their current vehicles longer or find themselves with little choice but to purchase vehicles that do not meet their desires.

The federal government should consider fuel-price increases as an alternative or a supplement to vehicle-efficiency regulation. (E-2) Increases in fuel prices should not be characterized as taxes because the purpose is not to raise revenue—collected funds could be used to offset other taxes. Increasing fuel prices would provide a market signal to channel consumer behavior in a direction consistent with societal objectives. It also would affect the use of all vehicles on the road, not just new vehicles. For example, there is widespread discussion of the nation’s decaying transportation infrastructure—roads, bridges, and the like—and of the need for substantial investment in its restoration and improvement. Funds collected at the gas pump for this purpose would pass the costs of the investment on to those who directly benefit from it.

There are ways to increase fuel prices without necessarily increasing the total costs to consumers of owning and operating vehicles. For example, at least some portion of automotive-insurance costs is properly related to the number and location of miles traveled. The recovery of a portion of the costs of insurance by charges at the gas pump might allow an equitable recovery of insurance costs. Because insurance costs are a substantial fraction of the operating costs of a vehicle, collecting a portion of them at the gas pump instead of by a direct payment to the insurance company might provide an important incentive for more-efficient use of fuel—with no net out-of-pocket impact on the average consumer.

Economic incentives can have a powerful effect on the traffic congestion that frustrates millions of American motorists every working day. With a travel demand that far outpaces the provision of highway capacity, there is little prospect that congestion will be eased simply by building new highways or transit systems. One response to the problem is to use pricing measures to provide direct incentives to motorists to reduce or shift their travel so as to use highway capacity more efficiently and reduce the emissions caused by stop-and-go traffic. An example of such an approach is time-of-day tolls (congestion pricing): a premium is charged to motorists who wish to drive during peak-travel periods. Tolls on roads or bridges, fees to enter congested areas, or changes in the structure of parking and transit pricing can all affect when and where people choose to drive.

Although they are politically difficult and complex, pricing measures have benefits that are sufficiently promising that local and state governments, toll authorities, and private investors should experiment with their application. (E-3) Continuation of federal support for experimentation and removal of federal restrictions on experimentation would create more opportunities at the local level. Market-oriented solutions, such as congestion pricing, might be a far more effective way to curb the congestion and environmental costs of highway use than are the current federal limitations on the construction of new highways. (E-4)

Pricing mechanisms can usefully be supplemented by other interventions that take advantage of how the targeted individuals and organizations attend to, understand, and make use of information about technologies that affect energy use. Adoption of a new technology often depends on whether the potential adopters use and trust sources of information on the new technology. To make policies more effective, government needs to get accurate information to the potential adopters of technologies from sources that companies trust and in forms that they find useful. (E-5) That might mean finding ways to make the adopters’ own experience a reliable source of information, working with intermediary organizations, or creating ways that official information can be independently verified.

For more information on the use of markets in environmental management:

  • E-1. Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming: Mitigation, Adaptation, and the Science Base, Panel on Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming, 1992

  • E-2. Automotive Fuel Economy: How Far Should We Go?, Committee on Fuel Economy of Automobiles and Light Trucks, 1992

  • E-3. Curbing Gridlock: Peak-Period Fees to Relieve Traffic Congestion, Committee for Study on Urban Transportation Congestion Pricing, 1994

  • E-4. Expanding Metropolitan Highways: Implications for Air Quality and Energy Use, Committee for Study of Impacts of Highway Capacity Improvements on Air Quality and Energy Consumption, 1995

Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
  • E-5. Energy Use: The Human Dimension, Committee on Behavioral and Social Aspects of Energy Consumption and Production, 1984

Adaptive Management Promotes Effective Interactions Between Managers and Scientists

Uncertainty about the impacts and effectiveness of environmental policies suggests the benefits of being flexible and adaptive. We need to learn from our experiences and incorporate new and better information into the management process. Programs and policies tend to be more effective if they are able to change to reflect new knowledge and new circumstances.

The need for flexibility is especially apparent if the relevant knowledge base is sketchy or is rapidly changing. In the Bering Sea, for example, there are no definitive explanations of why many populations of sea lions, seals, and birds have undergone large and sometimes sudden declines. Many suggestions have been put forward—such as the effects of commercial fishing or changes in sea ice—but information remains scarce. The Bering Sea is in international waters between North America (including the United States) and Asia, so management of these waters is difficult.

Fish and wildlife management actions in the Bering Sea should be designed so that their effects can be studied, should take ecosystem processes into account, and should not focus only on individual species. (F-1) Better coordination is needed among the nations and institutions that make decisions concerning use of Bering Sea resources. A comprehensive directory of Bering Sea databases would help to organize the data needed to make these determinations.

The complexity of many environmental problems highlights the need for adaptive-management strategies. For example, solutions to the Pacific salmon problem will be complex and often hard to agree on. The current uncertainty and controversy over the benefits of habitat-improvement projects, hatcheries, and other management and restoration approaches for Pacific salmon are due largely to a lack of adequate scientific information. Watershed analysis, adaptive management, careful inventory, and strong regional monitoring programs are needed to provide the context within which management decisions can be made. (F-2)

Another example of the need for adaptive management is the management of coastal areas. Coastal ecosystems are under stress because of a variety of human activities, and many have experienced widespread degradation. More knowledge about coastal ecosystems, including the human component, is needed to manage these systems in a manner that will preserve their value and restore degraded systems, while allowing economic development and a high quality of life.

Adaptive-management systems—in which science is a substantial part of planning, evaluating, and modifying management strategies—can improve interactions between scientists and managers for the purpose of creating more-effective environmental policy in coastal areas. Government should use adaptive-management approaches in coastal policymaking and implementation, and it should improve the allocation and coordination of resources to achieve effective interactions between coastal scientists and policymakers. (F-3)

For more information on adaptive management:

  • F-1. The Bering Sea Ecosystem, Committee on the Bering Sea Ecosystem, 1996

  • F-2. Upstream: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest, Committee on Protection and Management of Pacific Northwest Anadromous Salmonids, 1995

  • F-3. Science, Policy, and the Coast: Improving Decisionmaking, Committee on Science and Policy for the Coastal Ocean, 1995

We Must Move Toward a Sustainable Relationship with the Natural World

Environmental policies usually have focused either on specific media (air, water, or land) or on specific resources (petroleum, groundwater, or marine ecosystems). But media and resources are bound up in systems characterized by complex interconnections. To address environmental issues in their full complexity, policies should reflect a broad systemwide perspective.

For some environmental issues, the transition toward this broader perspective is under way. Integrated coastal management, which seeks to identify environmental objectives and cost-effective strategies for achieving them on a regional and iterative basis, can help to protect coastal waterways from pollution. (G-1) Industrial ecology, which treats industry in much the same way that biologists view natural ecosystems, applies a systems perspective to producer and consumer activities in order to reduce waste. (G-2) On an even broader scale, the multidisciplinary field of earth system science seeks to understand the past, present, and future behavior of the whole earth system, including the effects of humans on that system. (G-3)

A systemwide perspective on environmental issues will

Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×

Regulatory Coordination

Numerous laws, regulations, and regulatory bodies at the federal, state, and local levels govern actions pertaining to the environment. For example, the large number of regulators with jurisdiction over the decontamination and decommissioning of facilities—such as the uranium-enrichment facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Paducah, Kentucky—and the large numbers of applicable laws and regulations virtually ensure an overlapping and conflicting regulatory regime. This complex regulatory environment can result in costly and labor-intensive site practices and can be counterproductive to protecting public health and safety. The regulatory environment also can cause delays, thus extending surveillance and maintenance expenditures. In major cleanup efforts, the federal government should expeditiously seek to coordinate all regulatory aspects with appropriate local, state, and federal agencies to ensure efficient and effective actions.

For more information:

  • Affordable Cleanup? Opportunities for Cost Reduction in the Decontamination and Decommissioning of the Nation’s Uranium Enrichment Facilities, Committee on Decontamination and Decommissioning of Uranium Enrichment Facilities, 1996

be essential to using the earth’s resources in a sustainable manner. (G-4) In the broadest sense, sustainable development requires that we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Achieving sustainable development will require changes in lifestyle, industrial processes, the types and amounts of resources used, and the products that are manufactured. Technology is therefore a key component of national and international efforts to achieve environmentally sustainable development for all nations. Governments should encourage industry to develop and deploy environmentally advantageous technologies through economic incentives and support universities and other research institutions in developing and implementing these technologies. All parties should pursue arrangements for monitoring and assessing environmental conditions and their economic implications. (G-4)

A major influence on the sustainability of future development will be the growth of human populations, both locally and globally. If current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology might not be able to prevent irreversible degradation of the natural environment and continued poverty for much of the world. Family-planning services, effective and available contraceptives for women and men, improvements in the social and economic status of women, and development policies that address basic human needs are all required to control population growth. The natural and social sciences will be crucial in developing new options for limiting population growth, protecting the natural environment, and improving the quality of human life. (G-5)

The broader perspectives needed to address pressing environmental problems are emerging. The challenge now is to understand and incorporate these perspectives in policies that achieve both immediate and long-term objectives.

For more information on integrated environmental management:

  • G-1. Managing Wastewater in Coastal Urban Areas, Committee on Wastewater Management for Coastal Urban Areas, 1993

  • G-2. The Greening of Industrial Ecosystems, National Academy of Engineering, 1994

  • G-3. Solid-Earth Sciences and Society, Committee on Status and Research Objectives in the Solid-Earth Sciences: A Critical Assessment, 1993

  • G-4. The Role of Technology in Environmentally Sustainable Development, Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences, 1995

  • G-5. Population Summit of the World’s Scientific Academies, A Joint Statement by Fifty-Eight of the World’s Scientific Academies, 1994

For Further Information:

The World Wide Web site http://www.nas.edu/21st includes up-to-date versions of all the documents in this series and on-line versions of the reports referred to in this document.

Internet Address: jjensen@nas.edu

Phone: (202) 334-1601

Fax: (202) 334-2419

Address: National Research Council Office of Congressional and Government Affairs 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20418

© 1997 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved. This document may be reproduced solely for individual, non-commercial, and educational purposes without the written permission of the National Academy of Sciences.

Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
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The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a private, nonprofit, self-perpetuating society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. Under the authority of the charter granted to it by Congress in 1863, the Academy has a working mandate that calls on it to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters. Dr. Bruce M.Alberts is president of the NAS.

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) was established in 1964, under the charter of the NAS, as a parallel organization of distinguished engineers. It is autonomous in its administration and in the selection of members, sharing with the NAS its responsibilities for advising the federal government. The National Academy of Engineering also sponsors engineering programs aimed at meeting national needs, encourages education and research, and recognizes the superior achievements of engineers. Dr. William A.Wulf is interim president of the NAE.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) was established in 1970 by the NAS to secure the services of eminent members of appropriate professions in the examination of policy matters pertaining to the health of the public. The Institute acts under the responsibility given to the NAS in its congressional charter to be an adviser to the federal government and, on its own initiative, to identify issues of medical care, research, and education. Dr. Kenneth I.Shine is president of the IOM.

The National Research Council (NRC) was organized by the NAS in 1916 to associate the broad community of science and technology with the Academy’s purposes of furthering knowledge and advising the federal government. Functioning in accordance with general policies determined by the Academy, the Council has become the principal operating agency of both the NAS and the NAE in providing services to the government, the public, and the scientific and engineering communities. The Council is administered jointly by both Academies and the IOM. Dr. Bruce M.Alberts is chairman and Dr. William A.Wulf is interim vice-chairman of the NRC.

Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
Page 1
Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
Page 2
Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
Page 3
Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
Page 4
Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
Page 5
Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
Page 6
Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
Page 7
Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
Page 8
Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
Page 9
Suggested Citation:"Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 1997. Preparing for the 21st Century: The Environment and the Human Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9536.
×
Page 10
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