Often lacking the benefit of comprehensible scientific information, the layperson is generally unable to fully appreciate the magnitude and the implications of even the common environmental issues. Yet, the general public is increasingly sympathetic toward environmental preservation. The majority of American consumers claim that a company's environmental reputation affects their product choice.32 Surveys have shown the willingness of the consumer to even pay a small premium to ensure the environmental compatibility of certain classes of products. While individual exceptions to this altruistic mood exists (e.g., in NIMBY — not in my backyard — concerns relating to the siting of facilities such as nuclear power plants or solid waste processing plants), broad-based support for environmental preservation is widespread in the United States, Japan, and in western Europe. Public activity in legislating a cleaner environment is evident in the dramatic proliferation in U.S. regulations during the past two decades . The same is true of international treaties, agreements, and regulations, where most of them were reached after 1970.33
The technical nature of most environmental issues unfortunately precludes the general public from directly assessing and contributing to the decision-making process. Traditionally, the public has relied on experts, or scientists, to identify and clarify the relevant issues. Are paper bags really more environmentally friendly to use than plastic bags? Is using a ceramic cup instead of a paper cup for coffee more environmentally friendly? Do Styrofoam cups last hundreds of years in landfills? These popular questions do not have clear answers agreed-upon by all such "expert" scientists. Without such answers, however, the public cannot commit and mobilize itself toward sustainability at the level that will do the most good, at the local grass-roots level. This information vacuum is at times addressed by special-interest groups (both environmental and industry lobbyists) exploiting the situation to present questionable or biased information. The frustration of the general public in their attempts to find unambiguous answers to simple environmental issues might be attributed to two general causes.
1. The public perception of the "infallibility" of science that is expected to have all the correct answers to any technical question! A layperson correctly assumes scientific analyses and responses to be based exclusively on facts. The expectation therefore is that all scientists will agree on the assessment and the response to a given environmental issue. But scientists often disagree on even the very fundamental issues such as if global warming is really under way or not. Laypeople do not fully appreciate
32 A 1990 survey reported this percentage to be as high as 77 .
33 By 1995 over 170 international environmental treaties were in place. If accords and agreements are also counted, the number is around 800. However, the effectiveness of these in environmental preservation depends very heavily on the funding available for their implementation. Unfortunately, most of these initiatives did not reach their potential effectiveness due to lack of enabling resource commitments.
the multidimensionality of technical issues and the difficulties faced by scientists interpreting a limited set of pertinent data to arrive at the best possible answer.
2. Some of the decisions relating to environmental matters are essentially value judgments. For instance, the level of environmental intrusion that is justified in order to derive a certain social benefit is a particularly vexing question. The answer varies from person to person and is in any event not easy to formulate. Decisions made on the basis of an incomplete set of data, often difficult to interpret, is typical in environmental management. These are invariably affected by the degree to which the decision maker is risk averse, yielding a range of interpretations of the same information.
Unfortunately, the democratic process can be flawed when it comes to dealing with issues that include a strong technical component . Inadequate understanding of environmental issues, the absence of resources, and even the commitment by the individuals to arrive at a preference on these issues can result in the process being deferred to the societal level. Voting on a poorly understood technical issue does not lead to good judgment; it only allows well-funded interest groups with different agendas to play a bigger role in influencing the public conscience . The situation can only be improved by empowering the consumers at the grass-roots level by ensuring that relevant information in an easily understood format is made readily available to them.
Federal programs have served a valuable role in environmental stewardship in the United States. Most of the long-term data collected on the quality of the environment has been under federal grant sponsorship. In addition to collection of data, federal and at times state organizations provide analysis and research leading to mitigation of the more visible problems. These might be technical solutions, as with the Superfund cleanup program or unique nontechnical solutions available to governments. The latter includes changes in taxation (tax credits), deposit fees, incentive programs for recycling, release permits, and investments in infrastructure to promote select pollution prevention technologies. Regulation is the most salient function of the agencies. Regulation works via bans imposed on certain materials (e.g., bans on the use of polystyrene foam packaging in several counties) or through stringent quality-control measures imposed on specific industries (e.g., ceiling levels of VOCs in solvent-borne paints). Perhaps the most important role of the government is in educating the general public on the implications of environmental preservation. In a democracy, the better educated consumer will invariably be the strongest proponent of environmental stewardship.
In the United States, the EPA created in 1970, is the key agency entrusted with the environment and its well-being. Much of the last 20 years of efforts in the agency has focused mainly on cleaning up existing pools of pollution. Presently, this focus is changing to the prevention of pollution. The advent of the
Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 is a key piece of legislation that underscores this change in emphasis. The initiative, for the first time, encourages source reduction, the efficient use of energy and raw materials, process modification to minimize the release of pollutants, and conservation of nonrenewable resources. Also interesting is the recognition by the EPA of an effective supplement to the command-and-control route of regulation: economic incentives. Chemical processes, including polymer-related processes, in less regulated times often paid little attention to potential profitability associated with pollution prevention. The presence of economic incentives to promote pollution prevention can strongly motivate industries anxious about future regulations that may restrict their operation, to adopt a "greener" operational ethic.
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