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.