Wide acceptance may have bureaucratized the environmental movement, made it somewhat less aggressive than it once was, and growth and bigness may have produced a certain amount of factionalism; but nothing can obscure the fact that environmentalists have become the most pervasive and successful of all contemporary reform movements. Their accomplishments are tangible. As a result of antipollution laws, enforcement procedures, research and public works, our air is considerably cleaner than it was in 1970. EPA monitoring stations report that in five years the amount of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere has decreased by 25%, carbon monoxide by 50% and suspended particles by 14%. The number of harmful bacteria and the amount of organic waste in our waters are less than they were five years ago. About 95% of the industrial and municipal plants that dump sewage into the water are now under Federal directives and compliance schedules to purify their operations. There is 90% less DDT in our body tissue than there was in 1972 when, under pressure from environmentalists, the pesticide was banned. And certainly the air and rain are not as hot with radioactive contaminants as they were a decade ago.
A good many other and perhaps even more important accomplishments cannot be precisely documented because they are essentially negative, i.e., they relate to disasters that have not occurred but probably would have without environmental pressures. Nobody knows how many more endangered or, for that matter, extinct species there might now be, how depleted our resources, how foul our air, water and land would be, if the environmental movement did not exist or was less effective than it has been. The overwhelming consensus is that these vital signs would be in a much worse, perhaps intolerable, condition if environmentalism had not intervened.
The movement has grown and prospered because the nation perceived that it was necessary, and there is every reason to predict that it will continue to be strong, for much remains to be done. The air may be better than it was in 1970, but it is still not very good. About 65% of the population currently lives in areas where air quality does not meet minimum national standards. Urban air has generally improved while rural air has become worse. A National Academy of Science study found that despite the cleanup efforts, auto emissions may be responsible for the death of 4,000 Americans annually. In 1975 a spot check of 26,000 industrial plants discharging sewage into our waters showed that 65% were violating environmental laws. The level of phosphate and nitrogen pollutants in water increased in 1975. Some 9,000 communities serving 60% of the population will not be able to meet 1977 deadlines for sewage control. In this area a severe new problem—non-point sources of water pollution (that is, runoff carrying toxins and pollutants from residential areas, farms and industrial sites)—is just now being identified. Non-point sources may account for 50% of the water pollution in the country, and we have virtually no apparatus to control or purify these discharges.
A preliminary EPA survey indicates that almost every American has residues of two pesticide poisons—heptachlor and chlordane—in his or her body tissues. The two chemicals are widely used in household and agricultural products and are known cancer-causing compounds. EPA Administrator Russell Train believes that controlling and eliminating these and many other toxic substances is an area in which environmental protection has been weakest and in which some of our gravest problems lie. More and more, he contends, we will find that environmental degradation and contamination will prove to be the heretofore unsuspected cause of a variety of health problems and that when this is recognized, environmentalism may be regarded as a kind of preventive medicine.
The status of useful natural resources is another source of major concern. Each year because of erosion we lose 3.5 billion tons of soil. Last year 2.2 million acres of land were paved over, urbanized, flooded or turned into industrial sites. In 1975, 1.2 million acres of wildlife habitat were lost to developers, but only 86,000 acres were set aside for national wildlife preserves. In 1975 we imported 90% of the manganese, cobalt, chromium, titanium, niobium, strontium and sheet mica that we used. It is estimated that in 25 years our domestic resources will have been so depleted that we will be totally dependent on foreign mines for 12 necessary minerals and 75% dependent for 19 others. Nevertheless, in 1973 only about 7% of consumer wastes were salvaged and recycled.
To environmentalists—and everyone else—the most pressing shortage is that in energy. For most of this century the United States (which consumes 30% of the world's energy production) has been powered principally by petroleum. Currently we are using energy at the rate of about 75 quadrillion BTUs a year. About 45% of this energy total is derived from petroleum, 30% from natural gas, 18% from coal, 4% from hydroelectric sources, 2% from nuclear plants and the remainder from exotics or antiques such as solar, geothermal and wood power.
We are using oil at the rate of more than 16 million barrels a day, over half of it to run our transportation system. Our domestic petroleum reserves are estimated to be 33 to 75 billion barrels, worldwide reserves are about 660 billion barrels. At anything near the present rate of consumption, we will run out of oil sometime in the next 30 to 70 years. The limits to growth of a petroleum culture obviously have been reached.
Despite this bleak situation, there is a consensus (of everyone from Ronald Reagan to Barry Commoner, including past and present "energy czars" William Simon and Frank Zarb) that we have done virtually nothing to create an effective national plan for saving petroleum or developing practical alternatives.
Virtually all of the actions that came out of the oil-embargo panic of 1973-74 were aimed not at conservation but at stepping up domestic production and pursuing our sources of foreign oil so as to maintain existing oil habits. We have become more addicted to gasoline and diesel oil than ever, using 118.8 billion gallons this year, 4.4 billion more than the previous high of 1973.
The development of alternatives to petroleum has been slow and erratic and the focus of acrimonious dispute. Major coal reserves exist in the northwestern plains states, but their development has been opposed by agricultural, ranching and environmental interests. The objections are that strip mining for the coal will preclude other uses, degrade the land and water and create environmental havoc. Furthermore, coal burning is the dirtiest means of obtaining energy: it could escalate pollution levels that are already critical. The generation of nuclear power, once thought to be the solution to future energy needs, has not developed as rapidly or as well as predicted. After a 20-year effort, it now accounts for 2% of our energy supply. Costs of producing nuclear power have proved to be higher, profits lower and technological problems greater than anticipated. Consumer and environmental groups are frightened and/or angry about the risks of producing nuclear power and the long-term problems of disposing of nuclear wastes.