OUR ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS ARE SERIOUS
Our planet has always changed, continuously by geological and evolutionary processes and sometimes suddenly by astronomical cataclysm. Now, there is change from another cause, and it appears to be accelerating and creating severe problems for us. That cause is a single biological species: Homo sapiens. Several examples will illustrate the severity and complexity of the problems.
• Population Growth Is a Driving Force. Today's human population is more than 5 billion. It will probably reach 8.5 billion by 2025 and level off at 13 billion or more, probably not until the middle of the next century. Population growth has been accompanied by a more rapid increase in the use of natural resources and the production of environmental pollutants. We have converted about 11% of the earth's land area and more than 90% of the most productive habitats, such as prairies and river valleys, to agricultural use. We exploit much of the remaining land, as well as coastal waters and lakes, to harvest natural resources. We are using about one-third of the solar energy fixed by plants, and the fraction is growing (Vitousek et al., 1986).
Humans depend on various organisms in the environment for their survival. Those organisms provide oxygen, food, fuel, and fiber; mediate floods; affect climate; contribute to soil formation; fertilize flowers that produce fruits; increase soil fertility; and break down pollutants. These "environmental services" do more than ensure survival; they improve the quality of human life. Many environmental services (and threats to them) respect no political boundaries, can operate at very large scales, and are often affected by human activities in unintended ways.
Dwindling world food stockpiles in the early 1970s helped stimulate the application of new agricultural technologies to increase food production; this response has been called the "Green Revolution." Within a decade, the
improved crops, irrigation, fertilizer, pest-control chemicals, and other tools of the Green Revolution had provided some answers to the global struggle for food. World population exceeded 4.5 billion in the early 1980s, but the worldwide per capita harvest of grain peaked in 1984. Now, in the early 1990s, the decline of global food stockpiles is causing concern again. There are many questions about how successful we will be in ensuring that the food supply will be adequate for the growing world population.
The continued rapid growth of cities raises questions about the loss of arable farmland to urban spread, about the effects of municipal wastes and industrial pollutants on land and water resources, and about competing demands on and overuse of water supplies. Irrigation can create arable land and increase food production in the short term, but it entails potential long-term damaging effects related to salt buildup and water-logged soils. Similarly, increased use of fertilizer can lead to runoff of mineral nutrients that can overload and alter the ecosystems that receive them. The continuing evolution of resistance to pesticides raises questions about the future effectiveness of current methods to prevent crop losses.
As developing and more densely populated countries improve their economy and standard of living, they seek more animal products in their diet, and that increases demands on the world's grain supplies for animal feeds. More widespread and intensive cultivation with more specialized and productive genetic strains is displacing traditional varieties of crops that had evolved and adapted to the challenges of particular ecosystems around the world. We do not know whether the more productive genetic strains will prove more vulnerable to environmental shifts and pressures or whether the biological and genetic diversity present in native varieties can be captured and preserved. Many potential environmental consequences must be understood and managed or blindly suffered as land, natural resources, and ecosystems are manipulated to meet the increasing need for feed and food to support continued population growth.
• We Are Producing Global Change. For more than 99% of the time humans have inhabited the earth, their numbers and activities have been too small to affect more than their immediate, local environment. In the last few decades, however, humans have become a global force in modifying the atmosphere, oceans, land surfaces, and biota-a force that many believe is out of control. Human activities are measurably changing the composition of the atmosphere, adding gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) that alter the radiative balance of the planet and adding other gases (which contain chlorine) that destroy the life-protecting ozone layer in the stratosphere. Human activities have destroyed vast tracts of tropical forests and
agriculturally productive land. They have caused serious degradation of some of the largest sources of fresh water.
Collectively, human-induced changes in the environment are referred to as global change. It resembles an uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, whose outcome is unpredictable and might be life-threatening to many species, including humans. To observe, understand, predict, and—where appropriate—reverse the potentially dangerous aspects of global change requires an unprecedented international effort involving scientists in many disciplines, leaders of public and private sectors, and all the peoples of the world.
• We Have Enormous Waste Problems. A good example of our toxic-waste problem is that of the halogenated hydrocarbons (e.g., dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs). Between about 1947 and 1975, over 500,000 lb of PCBs was discharged into the Hudson River near Ft. Edward, New York. PCBs had been developed as nonconductive coolants for use in electrical transformers and condensers. Ironically, at the time of their development, PCBs were considered an important environmental advance over earlier materials, because they were much more fire-resistant. In 1968, accidental consumption of PCB-contaminated fish oil in Japan led to the observation of a strong connection between exposure to PCBs and chloracne, a serious skin malady. Tests in the United States indicated that PCB caused cancer in laboratory animals. Natural biodegradation of PCBs in the environment appeared negligible. Legislation to limit PCBs in foods was passed in 1970; manufacture of the chemicals later stopped, and the nationwide removal and destruction of PCBs were initiated.
About 1970, it was discovered that PCBs had contaminated fish in the Hudson River after breaching of the dam at Ft. Edward. Immediate dredging of the PCB-contaminated sediment in the upper Hudson River could probably have removed about 90% of the PCBs for perhaps $30 million. However, uncertainty about the environmental consequences of dredging delayed the dredging decision. Natural hydrological characteristics of the watershed caused substantial movement in the sediment deposits, which resulted in higher and higher cleanup costs (up to $250 million) for smaller quantities of PCBs (perhaps 30%). The many state and federal agencies with responsibilities for health, water supply, fishing, environmental protection, river transportation, etc., have each aggressively and persuasively pursued their (sometimes overlapping) legislative obligations but have never agreed on what actions to take. The PCBs are still in the river, although natural dilution, sediment distribution, clean sediment covering contaminated sediment, volatilization, and biodegradation have resulted in reduced PCB concentration in the fish populations (but fishing is still restricted).
The issues related to the PCB problem cross many of the conventional disciplinary boundaries, such as ecology, chemistry, biochemistry, geology, hydrology, sedimentology, and medicine. (As more knowledge of the health impacts of PCBs has become available, some scientists have begun to believe that they are less toxic than suspected.) They cross the three media: land (sediment), water, and air (volatilization of PCBs). They are multijurisdictional among and within federal, state, and municipal agencies. And they involve many aspects of the engineering of dredging, treatment, and disposal; economics; social science; and public policy. There is little established consensus on how clean is clean enough. The PCB problem operates on many physical scales: the molecular scale for sorption and biodegradation; the regional scale, which affects 175 miles of the Hudson River, the New York Bight, and Long Island Sound; and the global scale, over which volatile PCBs are dispersed.
• Biological Species Are Becoming Extinct. Human activity threatens to cause the extinction of hundreds of thousands of species during the next century unless strong preventive action is taken. Although we do not know why frog populations are declining and even disappearing all over the world or why migrating bird populations in the eastern United States have declined at rates as high as 5% per year over the last 15 years, enough is known to make human activity a prime suspect. More research will be needed to identify the causes with confidence.
If the human population continues to grow and per capita resource use rises as living standards increase in developing countries, the proportion of terrestrial biological production co-opted for human use will continue to rise. Biological production is co-opted primarily by converting species-rich environments into intensively managed areas in which a few species of commercial value are favored at the expense of most other species. Habitat destruction is believed to be contributing to the endangerment of about three-fourths of the species whose continued existence is threatened.
Another important cause of species extinctions is overexploitation driven by prospects of economic gain (see, e.g., Ludwig et al., 1993). The prospects include lucrative specialty markets (e.g., in sperm oil, alligator skins, and ivory) and harvest for food, fuel, and fiber. Introduced species have been responsible for the extinction of many native species, particularly on oceanic islands.
Extinction of large numbers of species is a concern for economic, aesthetic, and moral reasons. Humanity depends on the diversity of living organisms for food, fiber, construction materials, medicines, and drugs. Genes from wild organisms are incorporated into domesticated species to improve production and to provide disease resistance and pest resistance. In fact,
natural biotic resources are the raw materials for the biotechnology industry. The world's ecosystems provide the important services already discussed. All these services depend, in part, on the richness of species.
Not only does the loss of species diminish the benefits we derive from nature; the loss is irreversible. Polluted environments can be cleaned up and degraded systems restored, but extinction of a species is permanent.
•Large Sums Are Spent on Environmental Regulation and Management . An enormous amount of money is spent on environmental regulation and management, particularly in the United States. No one knows precisely how much damage to public health and the environment is prevented by these regulatory and management activities, but it must be enormous as well. To what degree is the money being well spent, how much damage is it preventing, and how could the money be spent better? In fiscal year 1991, the federal government spent approximately $18.6 billion for environmental protection and management, and state and local governments spent an estimated $28.4 billion on sewerage and solid-waste management (CEQ, 1991). Environmental regulations cost an estimated $115 billion in 1990, or about 2% of the GNP; compliance with the Clean Air Act alone costs approximately $32 billion a year (Abelson, 1993; CEQ, 1991; EPA, 1990a). Other estimates of similar costs—also measured in billions of dollars—are provided in the 1992 Office of Technology Assessment report Trade and Environment: Conflicts and Opportunities. The cleanup of all the major hazardous-waste sites in the United States would cost an estimated $750-1,000 billion over the next 30 years (Russell et al., 1991). Nine Ohio cities estimated the cost of compliance with environmental regulations at $3 billion over the period 1992-2001 (Ohio, 1992).
Although environmental regulation and management have measurably and noticeably improved many aspects of environmental quality, there is not enough money in the U.S. economy to eliminate environmental risks. Yet some risks are clearly serious. Where should the effort and money be spent to be most effective? As an example of the need for such research, a recent National Research Council report demonstrated that the Environmental Protection Agency's multibillion-dollar program to control tropospheric ozone might have been seriously misdirected because of the failure to monitor and verify estimated emissions of ozone precursors and the reductions in those emissions that were predicted to occur as the result of regulatory controls (NRC, 1992a).
WE HAVE LEARNED MANY LESSONS ABOUT ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS
The physical, chemical, and biological systems that determine how the environment functions are individually complex, and they interact with one another in complex ways. The problems of human effects on ecosystems are essentially systems problems that involve interactions among many biological, physical, chemical, and social components. The results of the interactions are themselves complex and unpredictable, and the underlying causes of ecosystem change, although they might be simple to understand, are almost always multiple.
The problems are fundamentally nonlinear in causation (i.e., effect is not proportional to cause) and demonstrate multiple stable states and discontinuous behavior in both time and space. They are increasingly caused by slow changes that reflect decades-long accumulations of human influences on air and the oceans and decades- to centuries-long transformations of landscapes. Those slow changes cause sudden changes in environmental variables that directly affect people's health, productivity of renewable resources, and vitality of societies. Examples of such problems are global climate change and the accelerating loss of biological diversity. The loss of the last 1,000 hectares of tropical forest would cause a greater proportional decline in biological diversity than would the loss of the first 1,000 hectares.
Equilibrium-based concepts and the models and policies based on them are often inadequate. They result in policies that are unlikely to be successful, because they rely exclusively on social and economic adaptations to smoothly changing and reversible conditions. We must understand the interactions between slow and fast phenomena, and monitoring must focus on long-term changes in structural variables. Political pressures are for quick solutions, often in the face of incomplete and inadequate understanding, that can lead to more unforgiving conditions for later decisions, more fragile natural systems, and more dependent and distrustful citizens.
Environmental problems are now fundamentally cross-scale; i.e., they operate in both space and time. The spatial and temporal connections are becoming so important that problems cannot be dealt with as though their causes were operating on only one scale. National environmental problems are more and more likely to have their sources both at home and half a world away—witness global climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the biological, social, and economic effects of the increasing human population. Natural planetary processes mediating these interactions are coupling with the human economic and trade linkages that have evolved among nations since World War II.
WE MUST UNDERSTAND COMPLEX ENVIRONMENTAL SYSTEMS
Understanding the environment—how it works and how and why it changes—is essential for anticipating environmental hazards, for learning to live with long-term changes, for preventing undesirable changes, and for remediating and restoring damaged and degraded environments to ecological productivity. Prudent public policy dictates that we understand environmental systems well enough to assess the impacts of societal development on the resources that we depend on now and our children will depend on in the future.
Environmental research is the means by which we can develop the necessary understanding of complex environmental problems. The task is a daunting one and is fraught with difficulty. The difficulty arises from the inherent complexity of the systems, the diversity of their components, the need for interdisciplinary research, and the fact that many environmental services and the threats to them respect no political boundaries and have very large scales.
Environmental research has produced great societal and economic benefits. Investment in agricultural research has been estimated to yield a return of 15-40% per year in improved human abilities to harvest food and fiber from land under cultivation. The engineering studies that made it possible to build sewage collection and treatment facilities opened the path to drastic decreases in waterborne infectious disease. Without that advance in water-pollution control, it would not be possible for such large populations to live in cities so relatively free of disease. Advances in the understanding of weather patterns—such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which affects weather in the Pacific Ocean and, indirectly, throughout the world—have improved the abilities of human societies to predict and to organize responses to seasonal climatic changes that cause failure of food crops and threaten large-scale famine. Fundamental understanding of ENSO yields benefits each time El Niño occurs, which is more than once per decade.
Rachel Carson's description of the accumulation of DDT in predatory birds in her book Silent Spring (Carson, 1962) awakened America to the problems associated with the accumulation of chemicals in the environment. Ironically, DDT and other pesticides were introduced to solve environmental problems associated with the loss of agricultural products to pests and the transmission of disease among humans. DDT and its relatives seemed ideal because they eliminated many different pests and their persistence made less-frequent application feasible. However, these very properties were the source of unexpected and eventually serious environmental problems. Research has
helped us to understand why resistance to pesticides evolves rapidly and why agriculturally beneficial predators of crop pests might be affected more adversely than the pests we wish to control. This understanding has helped us to develop a new approach known as integrated pest management.
Although not all research brings large economic or societal benefits, it is clear that better understanding of the natural world and its responses to human activities has resulted in enormous gains in human welfare over the last century, and such payoffs are needed more than ever before.
WE HAVE NEW TOOLS
Daunting as the research task is, we have new tools that give us new advantages. Major advances in knowledge and methods make it possible to identify the dimensions of current environmental problems and to develop a new generation of research to deal with them. For example, in the last 20 years we have been able to reconstruct the composition of the earth's atmosphere over the preceding 160,000 years (through analysis of the gases trapped in Antarctic glaciers) and to correlate changes in it with climate changes. As a consequence, we can now say with some assurance that the present concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is at least as high as it has been at any time in the last 160,000 years.
The revolutionary advances in molecular biology not only have provided ways of improving human health and agricultural productivity, but also are yielding techniques that allow ecologists, systematists, and other biologists to unravel affinities in related groups of species and individuals. These techniques are transforming the evolutionary, ecological, and conservation sciences. Satellite imagery and other remote-sensing technology and geographical information systems are now routinely available to analyze patterns on a variety of scales. Computer advances, toward both portable and powerful large and parallel machines, have yielded ways to visualize complexity in both space and time.
These tools give us a picture of discontinuous behavior, of multiple stable states, and of interactions between slow processes that accumulate natural resources and fast processes that mediate ecological goods and services. Not only can we characterize the problems, but we now have the concepts and methods to begin to deal with them.
WE NEED NEW ORGANIZATIONAL ARRANGEMENTS FOR ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH
American environmental agencies and programs were created largely in the 1970s. The nature and scope of environmental problems have since changed dramatically. The human population has increased by half, and many of the issues that dominate today's environmental agenda were not widely perceived as urgent in the 1970s. In the 1970s, the degree of damage that we could do to the earth's ozone shield was not fully recognized. We were aware that a few species in the country were in danger of becoming extinct if protective measures were not taken, but few expected that human activities might cause the extinction of more than a million species during the next half-century (Wilson, 1992). When the first comprehensive environmental protection laws were written, we were not aware that the continuing flow of laws and regulations to protect the environment would commit the nation to capital expenses of hundreds of billions of dollars annually and a backlog of environmental remediation costs measured in hundreds, if not thousands, of billions of dollars.
It is essential that new information be reflected in revisions of environmental policies. Furthermore, if we are to sustain the current environment and improve it where it is unsatisfactory, we must continue to produce new environmental knowledge so that we can better comprehend the consequences of population growth, increases in the use of natural resources, and the production of environmental pollutants.
The way in which environmental policies emerged in the federal government has strongly influenced the organization, character, and effectiveness of the research that is conducted and how it is used to solve environmental problems. The nation's environmental efforts are not organized in any comprehensive way, and fragmented efforts cannot surmount the impediments to achieving the full benefit of research, including reduction of the enormous costs outlined above. Some of the reasons are described below.
• Most federal environmental research is mission- and medium-oriented . Government agencies can be conveniently grouped into three broad categories. The primary purpose of research agencies is to do research, that is, to collect information systematically with the aim of creating new knowledge. These agencies include the National Science Foundation (NSF), for basic science; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for weather and climate forecasting, study of biological marine resources, and oceanography; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA), for collection of information from satellites. These three research agencies account for about half the government's annual spending on environmental research.
Sector-specific agencies, responsible for broad sectors of economic activity, include much of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Transportation.
Finally, management agencies are responsible for more specific functions, such as regulation of activities that affect the environment and management of natural resources. These include the Environmental Protection Agency, much of the Department of the Interior, the USDA Forest Service, parts of NOAA, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Sector-specific and management agencies together account for about half the government's annual spending on environmental research. Their missions are distinctly more targeted than those of the research agencies (NSF, parts of NOAA, and NASA) that support the other half of environmental research.
Mission-oriented research (in contrast with basic research) cannot address the most important problems facing society, unless missions change in response to new knowledge and changing circumstances. Because mission-oriented research must be closely coupled to the priorities of sponsoring agencies, there is a natural tendency to attend more to the operational needs of the agencies than to the changing perception in the technical community about which problems are most important. Nor can mission-oriented research ensure that gaps in the national research agenda will be recognized and closed; indeed, mission-oriented agencies are not likely to promote a balanced research agenda at the national level, because they necessarily articulate their own agendas.
At the same time, one must recognize that mission agencies perform a necessary research function. Agencies focusing on basic research are unlikely to provide relevant information for pressing management problems that mission agencies must address.
• Laws and organization influence approaches to research. Existing agencies' environmental research programs are structured by agency mission, the environmental medium to be protected or used, and discipline. All three reflect specific legislative mandates to solve problems of specific concern to specific constituencies.
How laws are written and how agencies are organized make it difficult to deal with the challenge posed by environmental problems, for example, multimedia management of pollution. The policy mandates of the 1970s called for cleanup of polluted water and air and better protection of land.
Initially, improved pollution control could be carried out without concern for how the waste products of the control effort were themselves to be treated. But as air-quality concerns led to higher smokestacks to disperse localized pollutants, acid precipitation and vision-obscuring haze (often far from the source) emerged as problems. Attempts to solve those problems produced waste streams from scrubbers that had to be managed, lest they foul water or landfills. Environmental cleanup in one medium came to threaten environmental quality in other media. But the policy mandates have been slow to change, and research focusing on effective management of cross-media pollution lags.
• Organizational ''culture" can foster or impede research. The "culture" of government agencies influences the perception of problems and the importance given to them. For example, American national parks were established in an era when simple preservation was believed sufficient to maintain the natural resources for which the parks were established. The possibility that this vision might change over the decades was not foreseen, but research in the national parks has too often had low priority and been highly fragmented (NRC, 1992b). Park managers today lack a good understanding of their resources and the threats to them.
•There are other confounding issues. Research findings alone might be insufficient to trigger clearly warranted regulation. For example, although national and international action came relatively soon after the Antarctic ozone hole was discovered in 1986, the scientific concerns expressed a decade earlier (Molina and Rowland, 1974) were largely ignored by governments until the hole appeared.
Many environmental problems result from human activities or are exacerbated by them, and solutions to many of those problems require changes in human behavior. Attempts to change human behavior depend on a solid understanding of why people do what they do and how they respond to various types of incentives. Lack of attention to the determinants of human behavior might be responsible, in part, for many environmental policy failures (e.g., Ludwig et al., 1993). Ecological restoration, an emerging skill in the United States and around the world, is a clear case of tight coupling between natural and human systems. Excellent scientific understanding of how and why a site is degraded is necessary but not sufficient to ensure improvement; a comparable understanding of the human institutional and behavioral contribution to the degradation is also essential.
SCIENCE BY ITSELF IS NOT ENOUGH
No matter how good the science, environmental problems cannot be solved without integrating the science with environmental policy. To accomplish that, integrative study is needed to bridge the multidisciplinary gaps and to deal with the conflicting policy goals held by varied constituencies. Research is necessary but not sufficient to solve problems. As an example, consider environmental problems that are caused by multiple widely dispersed pollution sources. Water-quality problems dominated by emissions from a small number of major point sources have been attacked with relative success, and many badly polluted waters are now fishable and swimmable. But today's leading contributor to surface-water pollution in the United States is nonpoint pollution originating from thousands of households and farms. Determining the actual contributions of these dispersed sources and developing appropriate and effective remediation procedures will be much more difficult. Solutions to such problems promise to be even more difficult to devise and implement and promise to involve large social, economic, and political adjustment. Indeed, engineering solutions are not likely to be feasible, so understanding of how to induce changes in human behavior must supplement engineering in the search for solutions to problems.
Even if scientific methods and information are available, the effort to seek or implement solutions might not be forthcoming, especially if there is residual scientific uncertainty or if the solutions are potentially costly. Organizational, political, economic, behavioral, and legal issues often need to be resolved to achieve a solution.
The environmental problems we face are serious, and they are becoming more serious every year. We have poor understanding of many of the basic physical and biological interactions that cause them. Our government environmental agencies were created mostly two decades ago or earlier, and in the meantime the problems they were created to address have become more numerous and more complex. Understanding these problems is a daunting research task, but we have new tools to help us. The ways in which environmental research is organized are important, and new circumstances demand new ways. Research is essential but, by itself, is not sufficient. To solve problems, the best science must be combined with the legal, behavioral, economic, and political considerations required to provide people with opportunities to lead more secure lives, with assured futures for themselves and for their children.