Misconception About Environmental Degradation

UPDATE: Feb 7 2010: Len Ornstein has agreed to permit me to post his comment on my post. He offers another important perspective on this subject [see also his earlier guest post] 

Comment by Len Ornstein

“While we still, of course, can (and should) improve environmental quality further, statements such as ‘the crux here is that with each ensuing generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norms, as the non-degraded condition’ are false” is a bit of an overstatement. I’m 84 yrs old. I grew up in New York City, married and moved to the suburbs in 1955, where I’ve ‘remained’ since. Also, from the age of 1 to the present, with a few lapses during WWII. I’ve spent most of my summers on the upper Delaware River, on the border between NY and PA. As a biologist, I’ve also traveled fairly extensively during my professional career. So I have a great deal of anecdotal first-hand experience about almost a century of change in urban, suburban and rural environments. During my childhood, upstate NY and PA were in the early stages of second-growth recovery of their forests, which had been denuded in the period, 1880 – 1910. From that vantage point, the present status (near’climax’) of some of those forests represents a substantial ‘improvement’. But the Upper Delaware River (even with Federal protection) and its tributaries have converted from lush and vibrant habitats to much less interesting ‘drainage ditches’ during the same period! The same is true of all the streams in the suburban NYC area. So it’s a mixed bag; some things get better, and some get worse. The streets are no longer covered with horse manure, but atmospheric CO2 is steadily increasing. From my travels, I know that the same trends appear in virtually nearly all areas ‘near’ population centers. Hope this helps to temper your perspective.

********************

There is an impression that with each generation, that society becomes used to worse environmental conditions. I read this perspective in the post on Andy Revkin’s webite Dot Earth.

From http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/02/the-greatest-story-rarely-told/

“This process is known as normalization. Based on the concept of environmental generational amnesia, Dr. Peter Kahn shows in his work from 1999 that we take the state of the environment we encounter in childhood as the norm to measure increases in environmental degradation over time. Kahn notes that “the crux here is that with each ensuing generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norms, as the non-degraded condition.”

Over generational changes, we become progressively more accustomed to degraded environmental conditions. As a result, environmental problems become an accepted part of an everyday normality.”

This view on progressive degradation conflicts with my own experiences and that of objective scientific assessments.

For example, automobiles and trucks spewed vast amounts of unhealthy carbon monoxide (and other chemicals) into the atmosphere in the 1950s and 1960s. Traveling behind these vehicles resulted in breathing noxious fumes and visible emissions from their tailpipes. In recognition of the negative health effects from this effluent, the Environmental Protection Agency promulgated regulations to reduce the level of toxic chemicals that could be emitted (the “good” effluent was the water vapor and carbon dioxide).  The success of this environmental program has been remarkable. 

One clear evidence of this success is the elimination for most urban (and other) locations of violations of the EPA carbon monoxide standards, as was documented in

National Research Council, 2003: Managing carbon monoxide pollution in meteorological and topographical problem areas. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 196 pp.

This report has the preface

“The regulation of carbon monoxide has been one of the great success stories in air pollution control. While more than 90 percent of the locations with carbon monoxide monitors were in violation in 1971, today the number of monitors showing violations has fallen to only a few, on a small number of days and mainly in areas with unique meteorological and topographical conditions.

Another example, on a longer time scale, is the preservation of unique landscapes in the United States (and elsewhere) in National Parks and Mounments and other federally protected land. The Nature Conservancy has led a outstanding non-governement sector effort to preserve land. The U.S. Wilderness system has been an enormous success; e.g. see Happy 45th Anniversary of the US Wilderness Act! where it is written

“Today marks the 45th anniversary of the US Wilderness Act – definitely a day to celebrate!

The act, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System, now protectes 109 million acres of wilderness! President Obama released an official proclamation in honor of the anniversary. In it he states: “This law and the National Wilderness Preservation System it established have served as a model for wilderness laws in many of our States and in countries around the world.” We couldn’t agree more President Obama!”

These are just two examples of what has been successful improvements to the environment from what our parents and grandparents experienced. While we still, of course, can (and should) improve environmental quality further, statements such as “the crux here is that with each ensuing generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norms, as the non-degraded condition” are false.

Comments Off on Misconception About Environmental Degradation

Filed under Climate Science Misconceptions

Comments are closed.