ArticlesPolicy Consideration

Tensions Between Materials and Environmental Quality

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Science  20 Feb 1976:
Vol. 191, Issue 4228, pp. 665-668
DOI: 10.1126/science.191.4228.665


The tensions between availability of materials and quality of the environment will increase with economic growth and the appreciation of environmental values. These tensions can be relieved to an extent by internalizing the costs of environmental protection so that they are reflected in the price of materials. Economic incentives and disincentives, such as effluent fees, are receiving renewed attention (5, pp. 49-51). In addition, government regulation to protect the environment will, perhaps arbitrarily, affect the availability and use of materials. The report, Man, Materials, and Environment (5, p. 25), concluded that:

A national materials policy should be based upon the principle that calculations of benefits and costs associated with the extraction, transport, processing, use, and disposal of materials should take full account of the value of common property resources and of any change in the value of common properties resulting from the impact of materials on the environment; and should support the principle that those responsible for impairment of the environment should bear the costs of damage or repair. These principles should become a commonplace element of property rights, legislation, and administrative practice at all levels of government. The difficulty of measuring benefits and costs should not delay adoption of these principles but suggests the need for continuous observation and experimentation.

Environmental protection regulations will result in: (i) increased costs for many materials; (ii) disruptive changes in use of materials, due to environmental characteristics and revised cost effectiveness calculations; (iii) restrictions on the siting of processing and manufacturing installations; (iv) preemption of access and surface rights to some mineral bearing lands, particularly those that are federally controlled; (v) diversion of capital from new production facilities; and (vi) frustrating delays in decisions, such as those affecting leasing and plant siting.

In return for these generally undesirable disruptions in the continued development and supply of materials, society will obtain: (i) improved quality of air and water; (ii) long-term protection of the natural ecosystems of which man is a part; (iii) more efficient allocation of natural resources on the basis of more accurate and complete accounting of costs; (iv) improved human health through decreased contamination of the environment with toxic substances; and (v) conservation of materials through a closing of the production, use, and disposal cycle.

Ingenuity and a more complete understanding of the parts and interactions of the energy, materials, and environment system can do much to reduce the tensions in these conflicts and bring about equitable trade-offs among societal goals.

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