April 22, 2012
According to James Gustave Speth, the dean of the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, if we “continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates… continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates… the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.” The important part about this quote is that it specifies current rates. With current rates, we will create a world not fit to live in within our children’s lifetimes. But with the exponential growth of both our population and our economy, holding current levels isn’t even possible as they are rapidly accelerating to meet with demands.
So what’s the answer? Is our current environmental legislation not enough? Are they too few in number, or too lenient to be effective? Environmental laws and regulations are determined by, and regulated and enforced by assemblies, specialized to certain aspects of the environment. Examples include the Environmental Protection Agency and National Resources Defense Council, and all have legislative, judicial, and executive power to make, shape, regulate, and enforce laws. In many cases, the regulations set for by agencies are strict. For example, when regulating the amount of chemicals that can be in drinking water or in food products, chemicals are mandated to be below, or reported on the label, if they are present in any quantity above 1/1000th of the no observable effect level.
We do have a great number of regulations in this country. If the environmental movement, sparked in the 1960s and 70s by visible and overwhelming environmental degradation such as the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 or the even more visible LA smog of decades past, had never made the legislative and progressive movement that it did, our country would be in a much more ghastly state than it is now.
Inconsistencies, however, occur in our agencies and their oversight. Even with all the laws and regulations set forward, half of U.S. lakes and a third of its rivers still “fail to meet the standards that by law should have been met by 1983.” When there isn’t such a great, public demand to commit to regulations set forth, agencies can often slack off and are irregular in their oversight of the regulations that they set forth. Let’s look at the example of the Minerals Management Service , a former agency under the Department of the Interior. The M.M.S. until recently was in charge of offshore oil drilling, but in the past has been known to allow oil companies pay less on oil-lease payments, accept gifts from industry representatives, and, “in some cases, literally slept with the people they were regulating.” After the B.P. oil spill in 2010, this agency was immediately dissolved. With so much public attention brought to it, the fact that it was not regulating and enforcing what it was designated to became very visible.
This lack of regulation doesn’t just happen in this one agency. The only reason the M.M.S. got in real trouble was because one of the greatest environmental disasters of the decade happened under their watch. And if there are more examples out there of agencies that can barely regulate and laws that they are designated to, how can we even judge the effectiveness of our laws? It doesn’t matter if they’re strict or not if they can’t even be enforced. And with inconsistencies of the vigor of agencies’ oversight due to public opinion, aesthetic disasters, and current political officials, how can agencies be even taken seriously by the huge and powerful corporations that they are trying to control?
There are just too many factors and stakeholders that shape the policies and amount of regulation that an agency is going to perform. If we want any laws to be effective and carried out, they must be run and regulated and maintained by respected and powerful agencies. We must find incentives for agencies to maintain the integrity of our existing legislation and maintaining the goals that we set forth for ourselves environmentally, before we can focus on adopting new and stricter legislation. Because if this problem isn’t first addressed, any and every environmental law and regulation could become obsolete.
Kimberly Knabel and Justin Bodga are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.