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Failure of the Environmental Effort

June 1988

Citation: ELR 10195

Author: Barry Commoner

The enactment of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA),1 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to administer it in 1970 marked a turning point in the recent environmental history of the United States. Beginning in 1950, new forms of environmental pollution appeared and rapidly intensified: smog, acid rain, excess nitrate and phosphate in water supplies, pesticides and toxic chemicals in the food chain and our bodies, and dangerous accumulations of radioactive waste. Then, in 1970, pressed by a newly aroused public, Congress began a massive effort to undo the damage. Now, nearly 20 years later, the time has come to ask an important and perhaps embarassing question: How far have we progressed toward the goal of restoring the quality of the environment?

The answer is in fact embarassing. Apart from a few notable exceptions, environmental quality has improved only slightly, and in some cases has become worse. Since 1975, when most of the consistent environmental measurements began, overall improvement amounts to only about 15 percent. (See accompanying Tables I, II, III.) And at least in the case of air emissions (other than lead), since 1981—the advent of the current Administration—the annual rate of improvement has dropped from 1.52 percent per year to only 1.16 percent per year.

Barry Commoner is director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College in Flushing, New York. Dr. Commoner is a graduate of Columbia University and received an M.A. and Ph.D. in biology from Harvard. His books include Science and Survival, The Closing Circle, The Power of Poverty, and The Politics of Energy. This Dialogue is adapted from an address presented at a seminar series sponsored by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in January 1988.

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