Chapter III, Section C, Item 3.  The Pollution Paradigm Fallacy

Writing in the New Republic (The New Republic, September 24, 2007), Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger posited that, in the aftermath of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, America’s environmental movement had become too fixated on pollution, and thus a “pollution paradigm” caused the environmental movement to neglect the issue of the need for clean energy. True, America in general, including the environmental movement, has frustratingly neglected the entire energy issue over the years, and still does not fully appreciate the interconnectedness of economic, strategic, sustainability, and environmental issues, all linked by energy.

These days the “clean energy” issue is synonymous with the CO2 emission issue. There was a time where the complete combustion of compounds solely into CO2 and H2O out of the smokestack was considered an environmental success, representing energy efficiency with a concomitant reduction in smog, carbon monoxide, or oxides of other impurities. Nordhaus & Shellenberger’s chastisement of the environmental movement for being solely focused on environmental contaminants–even excluding the greenhouse gases, CO2 and methane, from the “pollution paradigm” list–is misplaced. Environmental contaminants of all varieties in all media—air, surface water, soil, and groundwater--are a major part of the energy crisis, given the imperative energy used to remediate these compounds to maintain a sustainable human ecosystem.

Though pollution is considered to be anything in excess and not just environmental contaminants–for example noise pollution–most commonly the term does refer to biological, chemical, or radiological contaminants in the environment. Levels of contaminants of concern are regulated against exposure through soil, air, and water. But cleaning these contaminants out of these media requires energy. Lots of energy. 1979 was a pivotal year for environmental consciousness. The Love Canal and 3-Mile-Island incidents mark a point in time where the “environmental movement”– a set of causes–gave rise through regulation to the “environmental industry,” a set of careers. Certainly an industry concerned with public health, waste management, and waste disposal existed previously. But with the advent of the Superfund [a.k.a. CERCLA] legislation the following year, and with additional regulation and modifications to Superfund in 1984, the environmental industry began to identify and clean up environmentally contaminated sites. The revised regulations in 1984 pushed the burden of clean-up from the government onto the private sector, and environmental audits and clean-ups became a matter of standard business practices, real estate transfers, and litigation.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger acknowledge that the regulatory legislation resulting from the environmental movement, paraphrased to present rather than past tense, “[began] to clean up our lakes and rivers, to greatly reduce smog in our cities, to deal with acid rain, and to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals.” In their view, the success itself induced the environmental movement to view the climate change issue as a big CO2 pollution problem rather than an energy problem. True, a focus on zero emission energy resources would eliminate the major source of CO2 in the atmosphere. But the pollution problem, including the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, requires energy, and is thus an energy resource issue in reverse.

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