Silence about a destructive power

Environmental Practice
May 12, 2000

This journal is aimed very specifically at environmental practitioners in the US. The contents range from the ephemeral and anecdotal (the size of the swimming pool at the next conference and who has been accepted into the ranks of environmental professionals in Florida or North Carolina) to the consideration of important and practical scientific issues relevant to the jobs that these environmental professionals have to do when they go to work on a Monday morning. This range and rootedness gives the journal a flavour and strength unusual in environmental journals.

The first four issues (volume one) set the distinctive style of the journal. Each has a theme: "Wetland impacts in environmental impact statements", "Stream water quality assessment in the Ukraine", "Ecoregion framework for management" and "Burned riparian zone shows dangers of hydrocarbon transport". They reveal a welcome interest in the environmental problems of the former USSR and a number of strong articles on water quality and water management.

There are also some worrying eccentricities for an environmental journal. The first issue contains a guest editorial by Thomas Cuba, "Reflections on sustainable development". Here, in the opening issue, was an opportunity to spell out exactly how US environmental professionals are tackling the interpretation and delivery of sustainable development. The result is surprising, especially as Cuba is the chair of the sustainable development working group of the National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP). His position is very simple: sustainable development will never occur, and he and his colleagues cannot find any example of it anywhere.

What is worrying about a journal that runs this material without an alternative perspective is that at best it fundamentally misunderstands sustainable development and at worst it represents a high-level, deliberate professional rejection of a major underlying principle of environmental intervention. Sustainable development is discussed without one mention of global issues or of the role of the US - which accounts for 25 per cent of greenhouse gas production with 5 per cent of the world's population-in helping or hindering progress towards global sustainability.

Even more surprising is that there is no mention of the progress being made in the US following on new legislation that encourages public transport (transit) and the development of alternatives to the car. This really is news, though the effect is small-scale and has to survive within a land-use and fiscal system that elevates non-sustainability to being a policy objective. Why does Cuba not even attempt to identify what is non-sustainable as part of his denial of sustainability?

Sustainability is attacked once more in the article by Robert Lackey ("The savvy salmon technocrat: life's little rules"), under the heading, "Avoid the allure of junk science and policy babble". The discussion is dismissive in the extreme and fails to recognise the importance and utility of concepts such as environmental capacity, critical thresholds and long-term system maintenance. Cuba and Lackey are characteristic of other papers in this journal. The US is a huge consumer of energy and materials and of land and air hydrocarbon transport. It is the biggest player in the expansion of aviation, and aviation is the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change. The environmental problems that flow from the US lifestyle are global, as well as local, and yet they receive no coverage at all in the first year of this journal. That there are links between lifestyle and sustainability is just not recognised.

This is not a trivial criticism. There is obviously a problem for environmental professionals in the US in seeing such links. How do US environmental professionals propose to deal with the root cause of global environmental problems? What do they think about the global role of the US,which sends out the strongest possible advertising message in support of consumption, a message that is being received loud and clear in India and throughout Southeast Asia? What does the US environmental professional do when working on World Bank projects that are encouraging motorised and fossil-fuel transport around the world? Environmental Practice is silent on all these big issues.

This silence sits very uncomfortably with the strong ethical statement published in the journal and designed to inform the work of the NAEP and its journal. The statement itself is splendid and noticeably absent from UK environmental organisations and publications. The "code of ethics and standards of practice for environmental professionals" is reproduced in each issue of the journal and commits environmental professionals in their personal and professional lives to honesty, justice, integrity, fidelity, fairness and impartiality. Moreover, environmental professionals will "interest themselves in public welfare" and "be ready to apply their special knowledge for the benefit of mankind and their environment".

The difficulty comes with the fact that the US has a long history of locating environmentally damaging facilities near poor residential areas and/or areas inhabited by Afro-Caribbean and Hispanic communities. Incinerators, waste dumps, freeways and such are more likely to end up in such an area than they are in the affluent suburbs of Washington DC or Orange County in California. This is an ethical issue. The US government is funding a transport consultancy in Calcutta that is targeting the existing tram system for closure and replacing it with an expensive transit system that will be unaffordable for the travelling public. It will provide business opportunities for corporate America, but it will damage the interests of women and children in Calcutta who currently find the trams a pleasant and affordable option to an unpleasant set of alternatives. This, too, is an ethical issue.

The NAEP's ethical objectives are tough, and it has not delivered on them.Indeed, its journal lends credibility to attacks on sustainability and denies the importance of people and localities in US professional environmental thinking. It is typical that the last page of volume one encourages US environmental professionals to go to a conference in Sweden in July 2000 and, having flown to Copenhagen, to rent a car so as to "be one of the first people to experience the new bridge connecting Sweden with the rest of Europe". Those European environmental professionals who worked for five years to point out the enormous environmental damage this bridge will cause will no doubt feel rewarded to know that it will give their US colleagues a pleasant driving experience on their way to discuss "how a green corporate philosophy can have a positive effect on profitability and stock value".

John Whitelegg is professor of environmental studies, Liverpool John Moores University.

Environmental Practice: Journal of the National Association of Environmental Professionals
Four times a year

Editor - John H. Perkins
ISBN - ISSN 1466 0466
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £86.00 (institutions); £65.00 (individuals)
Pages - -

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