Sustainability: The Next Step
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has learned a lot over its 36 years. In that time, the Agency's role has evolved from ensuring that businesses comply with environmental laws to encouraging and helping firms to find innovative and environmentally friendly ways to do business.
Today, the Agency is taking the next step to meet emerging environmental challenges, reshaping its agenda to help citizens and businesses become better stewards of the environment. That step is centered on the concept of sustainability.
When EPA was created in 1970 in response to public concern about pollution and environmental degradation, it was directed to safeguard the environment and protect human health. The Agency immediately got to work, enforcing newly written laws to repair environmental damage and protect water, air, and land.
In those early days, the Agency acted primarily as the nation's environmental watchdog, ensuring that businesses met the minimum requirements to comply with the law. These efforts, which emphasized pollution-control technologies, were highly successful: the United States no longer has factories that uncontrollably spew toxins into the air or dump harmful chemicals into the water.
Implementing pollution control, however, also required big investments in time, resources, and money. So the Agency began to look for alternatives, developing ways to move from pollution control to pollution prevention. This effort sparked a new generation of innovative approaches to environmental protection. Market-based economic instruments-such as "cap and trade" programs to limit air pollution, public-private partnerships, public reporting by industry, and voluntary programs-were all implemented to help businesses not only meet environmental regulations, but exceed them.
Unfortunately, as these environmental success stories have increased, so too have the challenges. Growing populations, urbanization, and an expanding economy have led to increased demands for raw materials, greater use of pesticides and other toxins, and higher consumption of energy, overwhelmingly in the form of fossil fuels. These demands, in turn, have led to a host of new, far-reaching environmental problems:
- Nitrogen, phosphorous, and pesticide pollution in aquatic ecosystems
- Concentrated air and water pollution from "non-point" sources
- Dispersal and persistence of toxics in areas far from their original production and use, and
- Global climate change.
Today, EPA is drawing on its history of "lessons learned" to meet these challenges. The Agency's experience has proved that good stewardship from the beginning is better than relying on government agencies to search for violations, hand out penalties, and arrange for clean-up after bad practices have already settled in. In the words of Administrator Steve Johnson, EPA has changed its way of thinking about the environment, "from pollution control, to pollution prevention, to sustainability."A New Approach
EPA is applying the concepts of stewardship and sustainability to its work with American businesses and consumers to support a growing economy while protecting the environment. The Agency is creating integrated and systems approaches and fostering cooperative problem solving by the public and private sectors. Today's emphasis is on prevention and sustainability.
The term "sustainability" was first widely used to describe a particular kind of environmental policy in 1987, when a report by the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." That definition has been debated and analyzed ever since and there is now a general consensus that sustainability requires the balancing of economic prosperity, environmental responsibility, and social fairness.
"Essentially, it's all about making better decisions," says Alan Hecht, director of sustainable development at EPA's Office of Research and Development. "Underlying sound decision-making are advances in science and technology that support economic growth in the most efficient and clean manner without destroying the resources on which the growth is based. This is embodied in sustainability."
Hecht and his EPA colleagues are finishing up a research strategy to support sustainability's evolution from concept to practice. This effort will help the Agency build a strong scientific foundation on which citizens and businesses can become better environmental stewards.
For a history of EPA progress toward sustainability, see Shari Grossarth and Alan Hecht's, "Sustainability at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1970 to 2020," in Ecological Engineering.