America’s Deep Divisions in 2016

We’re deeply divided in 2016. Many think we should be guided by Judeo-Christian principles, and many think we should be guided by secular ideologies and whatever the majority desires. Many believe that fetuses in the womb should have rights, and many think they shouldn’t have any rights. Many believe that marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman, and many believe that marriage is a social contract between consenting adults. This deep division isn’t a good thing, but it’s nothing new. In 1776, many were willing to fight for independence from Great Britain, and many were willing to fight to remain part of the British Empire. In the early days of this Country, many thought America should get involved in the revolutions that were sweeping Europe, and many thought America should keep out of these conflicts. In the early 19th century, many accepted slavery, and many weren’t willing to accept it anywhere. In 1865, many thought we should split into two countries, and many thought we shouldn’t. After the Civil War, many thought the west should be open to settlers and farmers, and many thought that native peoples had a right to much of the land. In the early 20th century, many thought only men should be able to vote, and many thought that women should also be able to vote. In 1917, 1941, 1950, and 1965, many thought we should go to war on foreign soil, and many thought we shouldn’t. In the 1930s, many thought we should abandon our capitalistic economic system, and many thought we should make some adjustments and stick it out. In the 20th century, many thought nature was under the dominion of man, and many thought man was under the dominion of nature. We’ve been deeply divided for much of our history. This isn’t a good thing, but it’s who we are. It’s nothing new.

What 40 Years In The Environmental Trenches Has Taught Me


The environmental narrative we’re fed goes like this: toxic chemicals are lurking in our drinking water and streams, habitats are being destroyed, our air is laden with dangerous pollutants, things keep getting worse. We should be very worried.

After 40 years working on environmental projects—not at think tanks, policy institutions, ivory towers, or in government offices—I have a perspective on the environment that differs from most Americans. In those four decades, I’ve been privileged to help design and build dozens of water and wastewater treatment plants, big and small, and have worked on many projects that cleaned up sites, habitats, rivers, and lakes.

In robust democracies, the environment is cleaner than it’s been since the early days of the Industrial Age.

Many died from disease-bearing drinking water right into the 20th century. Now, the overwhelming majority of American water systems are safe and healthy. Today, some wastewater treatment plants produce treated water that’s better than their receiving river or stream, thereby improving the water in the stream. The Detroit River, once a repository of industrial wastes and untreated sewage has undergone a remarkable transformation, now hosting game fish, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons, and this is common nationwide, including waterways and habitats within our big cities. Some American companies have manufacturing plants with virtually zero water discharge to the environment. We have the technology to affordably convert toilet water into drinking water. Notwithstanding high profile environmental calamities, similar progress can be cited for our air and for almost every facet of the environment.

Then, why do so many have the perspective that the environment is deteriorating? Perhaps because the loudest voices belong to those with a financial interest in keeping funding spigots wide open, and to the zero risk crowd, and because the level of detection for many chemicals has been improved from parts per million to parts per billion or trillion, levels at which chemicals may be detected without any demonstrated health risk.

While most of us recognize that our daily lives fall far short of perfection, and though we engage in many activities—driving and competitive sports for example—that have far from zero risk, in environmental matters we all-too-often apply the standards of perfection and zero risk, rather than acknowledging the dramatic progress we’ve made, and continue to make.

When I attended Purdue University, Dr. James Etzel used to argue that robust democracies have cleaner environments than state controlled societies because democracies have an empowered citizenry that’s affluent enough to be able to clean up the environment, and keep it clean, affluence produced by free markets. Though often shouting at and disparaging one another, both environmentalists and free market advocates are responsible for the remarkable progress that’s been made in the past half century.

An abiding memory is a wastewater plant I worked on in Mexico City in the 1990s that treated wastewater flowing into a canal people were using as a water source. I remember them walking to the canal several times a day to clean clothes and collect pails of water. Though the water discharged from the new treatment plant wasn’t perfect, the quality was light years better. The knowledge that I helped provide those people with better water is a highlight of my career. In loud democracies at least, situations like the one that prompted this treatment facility are no longer socially acceptable. Furthermore, in authentic free markets these situations shouldn’t be acceptable either, as the total cost incurred by a banana cream pie producer isn’t reflected in the price of the pie if banana peels are thrown over the fence, as Etzel also asserted.

All these improvements came about because American citizens demanded a cleaner environment, because our free market economy made it affordable, and because our companies, entrepreneurs, and universities kept innovating to meet the desired outcomes. The end result is cleaner water, cleaner air, and cleaner habitats. For the most part, we’re also getting better at targeting dollars and human resources as compared to the scattergun approach we took in the 1960-1990s. You wouldn’t know this by the fiery rhetoric we’re subjected to, but at ground level you can see the effects.

Unfortunately, whenever an environmental subject is introduced, many Americans have already locked into a viewpoint, rather than stepping back, keeping an open mind, evaluating the issue on the evidence, and heeding theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, who said: “I’d rather have questions without answers than answers that can’t be questioned.” Questioning popular answers is how the environment has been, and continues to be, improved.


Sentience, a philosophical murder mystery (copyright 2016, T. M. Doran)

The passengers and crew on Sentient Air Flight 99:

Anarch—Columbia University professor

Autarch—chairman of Globalcorp

Cynic—Sentient Air captain

Deontologic—safety and security specialist

Empiric—CalTech astrophysics researcher

Glamor—L. A. celebrity model

Gnost—flight attendant

Hedon—scion of a billionaire

Libertine—post post-modern artist

Stoic—pantheistic clergyman


Thirty-two minutes, twenty-seven seconds, and twenty-nine thousand feet of altitude into Sentient Air’s flight from New York to Paris, Glamor’s head descended to her breast and her tongue emerged from her mouth like a lethargic snake from its lair. Read more