Don’t Be Afraid of the Environment

air pollution

Emissions from a sugar factory. Yes, a sugar factory

While teaching a recent environmental training course, I found it hard to paint of pretty picture of the environment. The course was about incorporating environmental considerations into your projects and decisions. It was a broader look at the topic than just NEPA. Most of the attendees didn’t have any formal environmental background or training. That is where, I think, the problems came up. After a few hours I eventually had to say, “Don’t be afraid of the environment.”

We discussed Flint’s leaded water, Volkswagen’s Clean Air Act violations, the Animas River in southwest Colorado, and others. I like to discuss the national issues, particularly with introductory students, to set a tone and environmental-mindset. I think it went too far with this group. One guy in the class talked about how his organization changed its plans because they didn’t want to “deal with” the environmental regulations of a site they were going to work. I didn’t intend for the message of the course to be that the environment is going to crap and our world is doomed.

It doesn’t help that many of the national environmental-themed stories are negative. Go to any major environmental news page and it’s one negative environmental story after another. Climate change impacts, contamination, another “hottest year on record”,  food waste, etc. Despite these scary headlines, I’d encourage you to check them out. These are not endorsements, but some of the big-guys include The Washington Post Energy and Environment, The New York Times Environment, or USA Today Environment. For a more scientific, and less gloom and doom, look at the day’s environmental stories check out Scientific American or Science Daily. Your local news website probably has an Environmental or Science page.

If you think it’s bad now, imagine how bad it would be if we didn’t have regulations to clean our air, manage our waste, or keep toxins out of our water. You don’t have to imagine. Look back in US history 40+ years and you’ll find stories like the burning Cuyahoga River, the Valley of the Drums, Love Canal, and many more, which are much worse.

We’re never going to be stop working to find a balance between population growth, open space, industry, manufacturing, our health, and environmental regulations. If you dismiss environmental regulations as a hindrance from the start, then we’re going to lose an important part of this balance – our health and clean open space.

I hope I left the class with a positive message despite the scary stories. I’ll end with this image from the EPA, which shows that despite increasing population, energy use, vehicle miles, and GDP, the air is cleaner.