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Kansas Geological Survey, Open-file Rept. 94-3

Earth Resources and Our Environment: Resource and Policy Problems

by Lee C. Gerhard

Director and State Geologist, Kansas Geological Survey President, Division of Environmental Geosciences American Association of Petroleum Geologists

Kansas Geological Survey, Open-file Rept. 94-3

Executive Summary


Despite excesses, environmental sensitivity in the United States has improved many aspects of our physical environment, and few would argue that these positive changes should be reversed. However, the environmental movement has lost much credibility over the last few years owing to extreme positions of vocal splinter groups, lack of sensitivity to social needs, shrinkage of wealth, and bureaucratic implementation of extreme agendas, sufficiently so that the media now disparagingly document negative aspects of environmental laws and regulations. Although a balance may be struck, political history suggests that policy may swing to unbridled exploitation and lessened concern for the physical quality of life.

In consequence, it is absolutely necessary to re-establish the basic tenets of a national environmental policy that preserves an acceptable quality of life for our mainstream society while including the disadvantaged and disheartened of America in its equations of cost and benefits. Five areas of weakness must be addressed: Lack of recognition of societal needs to preserve its standard of living, establishment of priorities, development of consensus standards, balancing of special interests, and application of holistic and high quality science to analysis of issues (with rejection of spurious issues).

Earth resources are the basis of wealth. Society's needs for these resources will direct the ultimate resolution of the debate, but with proper education and development of goals, an appropriate policy balance can be gained.

Earth Resources and Our Environment: Resource and Policy Problems

The environmental movement in the United States is in some trouble, despite a new federal administration committed to its ideals. The media are now examining the precepts of issues, and beginning to understand the excesses of rhetoric that characterize the more fanatical side of the movement (1). Legal challenges to environmental groups standing in issues and assessment of litigation costs for frivolous complaints are now being instituted (2). Questions about cost and benefit, special interests and special benefits now are routine, and frequently evoke frustration and disgust with the soft or poor science underlying popular issues. Inconsistency, mis-truths, and hidden agendas have called the entire movement and its hard-fought environmental gains under scrutiny. I believe there is danger of losing some of those gains which have been unquestionably good for the nation and all its people as the fringes of the environmental lobby strive to press their personal agendas upon an increasingly perceptive and unwilling public.

In consequence, it is absolutely necessary to re-establish the basic tenets of a national environmental policy that preserves an acceptable quality of life for our mainstream society while including the disadvantaged and disheartened of America in its equations of cost and benefit. National environmental policy must satisfy generally accepted norms for it to be successful, norms that include continuation of the opportunities for citizens to be economically upwardly mobile, to provide work for those who are now denied jobs, to provide a realistically healthy life environment for all, and to provide a breadth of recreational opportunities accessible to all. Our national policies do not now meet these norms.

Further, our environmental policies must be science-driven rather than agenda-driven, as they are now. Misleading science has no place in public policy, and legal definitions that are contrary to scientific definitions can not be tolerated if we are to keep public faith and thus support, for sustaining the physical, chemical, and biologic environment to which we agree to aspire. Inaccurate science and mis-truths must be confronted.

With that introduction to what I perceive as a growing problem, let us examine the issues the American public needs to understand if we are to develop a rational and useful national policy. While I anticipate much debate about what is included in this conceptual base, it will form a nucleus about which to crystallize our debate.

Five major areas of weakness are causing the anguish to national environmental policy:

  1. Lack of recognition of societal needs to preserve its standard of living.
  2. There are no established environmental priorities.
  3. There is no consensus on environmental standards.
  4. The environmental world is fractured by spurious issues, suffers from inflation of issue significance, and is increasingly directed by special interests and agendas.
  5. Effective environmental action requires higher quality and more holistic science than now attained.

Lack of recognition of societal needs.

There is no widespread understanding of the relationship of societal standard of living to costs of environmental policy, especially as related to slowing the production of wealth in the nation. Earth resources are not accorded the significance in policy that they play in sustaining the economy and our social fabric. One reason for this lies in the divorcement of the American people from their earth resources: land, water, minerals, energy, agriculture, and forestry. Increasing urbanization has created a divorcement between resource use and understanding of resource origins. Little connection is made by "Aunt Sophie" between turning on her television set and mining coal, dressing in new manmade fiber clothing and drilling oil wells, or eating a bounteous meal and making fertilizers, products of those same oil wells. Many years ago we farm kids laughed at city kids who thought milk came from bottles in grocery stores. We did not correct then the problem of source and product divorcement, so now we reap conflict over resource access.

Why worry? I worry because the basis of American wealth that provides our standard of living is the value of American earth resources extracted and value added. The relationship can be simply expressed as:

Sol = W/P

where Sol = standard of living, W = national wealth, and P = population (3).

Limitation of national access to earth resources, be they water, timber, farmland, minerals or energy resources, assumes that the limitations will mean that fewer of the resources are used. In fact, limitation of access and increased costs of value-adding simply substitutes foreign earth resources for our own, and transfers American wealth elsewhere to pay for the substitution. Thus, the term "W" does not increase as much as it would if the access were unlimited. Population continues to grow, that of the United States growing from 125,000,000 to over 257,000,000 in my lifetime, from the mid-1930's to the present. The United States has managed to increase its wealth in proportion to its population growth until recently. The ratio is declining, and this reflects in a lessened rate of increase in standard of living. When coupled to the trade balance figures of the same years, there is an absolute decrease in standard of living indicated for the United States (Fig. 1, 2).

Figure 1--Percentage of earth resources value in the GNP. Upper curves of graph include "value-adding" manufacturing. rade balance summed with curve as noted. Note that the percentage of earth resources in the GNP declined from 1950 to 1975, then stabilized, if trade balance is not included. However, when the balance of trade, largely controlled by the price of imported oil, is included, the percentage continues to drop. The lower curves reflect just the value of earth resources (agriculture, forestry, construction, fishing, and mining, including oil and gas extraction), without the manufacturing value, divided by the GNP, showing a decline in percentage from 1950 to 1970, but increasing slightly from 1980 to 1989. When the trade balance is included, the value drops precipitously from 1980 to 1989. All values are based on 1992 dollars. Data from post-1989 not available. Data from U.S.Bureau of the Census.

Earth resources as percentage of GDP from 1950 to 1989.

Figure 2--United States wealth per capita. expressed as dollars per person, in 1992 dollars. Uppermost curve represents value of earth resources, including "value-added" manufacturing, which rises steadily in value per capita from 1950 to 1980 From 1980 to 1989 the rate of increase is very small. The lower curves present the earth resource wealth values per capita without the "value-added" manufacturing. The upper curve does not include the trade balance, the lower curve does include the trade balance. Note the steep drop in wealth per capita from 1980 to 1989 as the increasing value of imported resources is summed into the total. Unequal distribution of wealth accounts for an apparent increasing standard of living of the wealthier portion of the population, and the worsening plight of the financially disadvantaged. Data from U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Wealth per capita from 1950 to 1989.

The obvious consequence of this change in standard of living growth is lessened standard of living for the already financially disadvantaged of America. The effects of the poor economy, in part owing to increased costs of resource access, environmental regulation, and importation, falls most heavily on those least able to afford it, so that the environmental movement has become regressive. Brimelow and Spencer argue that the early 1990's cost of environmental regulation by EPA, using EPA's own estimates of cost, were about $450 per person per year, with dramatic increases into this decade (4).

Our social fabric depends on continuation of our standard of living, despite contrary arguments that the standard is too high. Too high for whom? Perhaps the financially advantaged will wish to voluntarily give up some of their toys, but an ever-increasing financially disadvantaged class who cannot find new jobs when displaced by the depressed economy, who have never found a stable job, who live on taxpayer largesse, those people have nothing left to give. I cannot address the unequal distribution of wealth in this paper, but it must be part of our environmental equation.

Establishing environmental priorities.

There is no prioritization of environmental issues. Each group, each interest, devotes its energy, time and resources to a narrow and often counter-productive issue, without understanding the overall impact of the issue of the proposed solutions on the global setting. People think narrowly, and often the costs are not proportionate to the problem, or larger problems are ignored in favor of popular sentiment for small-scale issues.

In a previous speech (5), I outlined a base scaling of issues, ranging from microenvironmental issues to mega-issues, which I reiterate and amplify here.

Micro-environmental issues.

Those are issues that are short-term or in-home issues, such as disposal of household chemicals, lawn mulching, objections to sand and gravel extraction in the neighborhood, recycling of household wastes, and similar small-scale individual decisions. These are personal decisions, and although they impact the lives of others, their impact tends to be very local, and action agendas can be very personal.

Macro-environmental issues.

These issues are of larger temporal scale and cut across geographic boundaries. They include air pollution in large cities, single major aquifer contamination or de-watering, factory smokestack output, or single tributary stream basin issues. Frequently, like the preceding class, these are issues of NIMBY, "not in my backyard," but actions of no one person can materially affect an issue.

Tackling these issues requires organizational action rather than personal action, but care must be exercised to not let parochial views override the negative effects of actions on the community.

Meso-environmental issues.

These are regional in nature, and may have impact on very large numbers of people. The Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption and the eruption of Mt. Pinitubo in the Philippines are examples of natural phenomenon that fall into this category. Acid rain, when perceived as an issue, would have fallen into this category. Automobile efficiency and offshore drilling prohibitions are of similar scale in their potential long-term effects on standard of living. Population growth is at least this important. Pesticide regulation, predator control, insect control, and crop fertilization are all issues of this magnitude and have great impact on nearly all of society.

Great care must be exercised in the application of governmental power to insure that the issues solved are not symptoms, and that the solutions devised are real, necessary, and do not cause negative large scale-downstream effects. National government is responsible for exercising this concern and care, but must do so in an open and informed arena, and the examination and treatment must be holistic.

Mega-environmental issues.

Global climate change, ozone concentrations, and biodiversity are the three most popular issues today in America (ozone concentrations now being denigrated by its originators), but overpopulation, mass famine, soil erosion, desertification, and massive plague are much more pressing to the majority of the world. Mega-issues are of global scale.

Once issues have been scaled in scope and size, they then must scaled as to impact on society:

Human Health and Safety.

There should be no argument that the highest priority for environmental action should be on issues adversely affecting human health and safety, but reflecting the geographic scale or number of individuals in need. For instance, global climate change, if it occurs, would affect the entire global population. Thus, a mega-environmental issue affecting human health and safety is the most important issues type of all.

Perturbations of Natural Systems.

Earth systems suffer human interference poorly. Whether groins installed to preserve one beach that in turn cause erosion down the longshore for all, or unwise construction on floodplains or in earthquake zones, much human suffering and death occurs when geologic systems are ignored. 30,000 deaths in an Indian earthquake recently only underscores the needs to consider earth systems and geology as one of the most significant environmental parameters affecting humans. The 1993 midwestern United States floods also emphasize the problems of human interference in natural systems, with artificial river control measures adding significantly to flooding, and unrestrained development of floodplains being primarily responsible for preventable damage.

Societal Interest Issues.

These issues are primarily conflicts between perceived environmental issues and property valuation. Facilities siting problems are at the root of most of these problems, although occurrence of pests, moderate air pollution, and other inconveniences resulting from human activity fall into this category. Frequently these issues are expressed as "NIMBY," (not in my backyard) issues. Many of these issues also reflect changing values and personal risk in society, such as using environmental laws and zoning to preclude mixing of incomes, social classes, establishment of social support facilities, and transportation routes in neighborhoods.

Esthetic Issues.

Many loudly contested environmental issues involving earth resources are simply esthetic issues: some people regard a oil well drilling location in the Rocky Mountains as an engineering marvel, others regard it as an invasion of pristinity. Mines and mining districts are variously regarded as environmental eyesores or as major historical artifacts of our heritage. In many of these issues, perspective is individual and not based upon real long-term physical environmental effects. Haze in the national parks may be objectionable, but it has never been documented as a hazard. Many times arguments over esthetic issues pit region against region, community against community, for some of the nastiest confrontations of all. Recreational interests have precipitated many confrontations, since most recreation issues support the financially advantaged.

These scalar issues can be cross-plotted to arrive at a generalized "significance factor" for each issue discussed:

Health, safety,
of People
Nat. Systems
(1) Mega- 1 2 3 4
(2) Meso- 2 4 6 8
(3) Macro- 3 6 9 12
(4) Micro- 4 8 12 16
where ranking 1 = greatest long-term significance and 16 = least.

This table, which can be readily converted into a color chart, provides a measurement for the importance of any issue to the nation or any other entity. At a minimum, use of the table requires that each participant critically examine his or her stance, identify the pertinent aspects of their issue, and then argue for inclusion in a priority block. Hot colors would indicate hot issues, cooler colors, less important issues.

By means of this table, earth scientists can focus on real resource and environment issues. while demonstrating to lay citizens the relative merit of other issues.

Building consensus on environmental standards.

There are no consensual environmental standards. There is no national consensus about what our ultimate goal is. There can be no "pristinity," since it never existed. The biota and the earth have been in change for billions of years, and change continues. Humans are part of the biota, their works and deeds are part of the equation that with which we work, and wishful thinking and social engineering will not change that constraint. Therefore, we must agree on a set of standards to be attained. That agreement will not be by simple congressional vote or agency rule--it will have to be a consensus of the people. Why is this necessary? Simply, we are now enforcing environmental policy by ex post facto regulations and by constantly changing attainment standards. Our employers are never sure of their attainment goals, and the costs of constant change serve only to depress the economy and suppress capital development.

In order to build a national consensus on standards, it is necessary to recognize that regional differences exist and adjust standards to these differences. For instance, the national 55 mile-per-hour speed limit instituted during the oil crisis of the 1970's was never truly enforceable in many states. Laws that make little sense are rarely obeyed, and in Nevada and Montana, as examples, the law simply made lawbreakers out of average citizens. Yet, in the eastern states, the law made sense--there are many more passenger-miles driven in the populated east, distances are shorter, and traffic accidents more frequent. What was good for Massachusetts, however, was not useful for Nevada, where the opposite conditions exist.

Similarly, trash and garbage disposal in New York City is not an individual option, and care must be exercised to insure that the mass of garbage and toxic chemicals disposed of in that teeming metropolis does not pollute the region; however, it is most difficult to argue reasonably that the trash and garbage of one remote Wyoming ranch should be subject to the same regulations as New York City. The costs of rural trash disposal under new federal law almost insures widespread passive disobedience. The town of Pretty Prairie, Kansas, faces the imposition of EPA fines and penalties for not having constructed a water purification plant to treat its town water, which the EPA contends violates the EPA nitrate standard. The cost of the plant would be about $600,000. The town has a property tax base of about $16,000 per year. There will be no locally-funded water plant no matter what EPA insists. Civil disobedience is the result of poor legislation and regulation.

Clearly, population density is a major controlling factor in environmental mitigation. The EPA has always chosen to ignore this control, a normal reaction for a federal agency. The EPA has not established baselines for naturally occurring chemistry of water, air and land. Acquisition of baseline information should be a first priority of the EPA. Then population density criteria should be developed to implement standards of pristinity that are truly appropriate to the various population densities.

Special interests and agendas.

The environmental movement is fraught with spurious issues, and special interests, much as the movement spurns in its adversaries. There is need to ask questions about issues, about motivation, and group benefits (6). There is need to weigh costs against accomplishment. there is need to analyze issues clearly and in language that all understand.

Our global environment is constrained first by its geology, second by its chemistry and third, by its biology. Our environmental agenda is mostly controlled by biologists, second by chemists, and only rarely by geologists. The role of natural earth systems in constraining the environment and controlling human effects is poorly understood by most except for geologists. 30,000 deaths in India from preventable earthquake damage is not a concern to most, whereas the possibility of a few or perhaps, tens of early deaths from natural radon is considered a major national issue. Floods and fires annually kill and bankrupt people, but little is done to mitigate these easily controlled effects of natural events.

One of the great quasi-scientific lies is that we are "running out" of a resource (read oil, iron, copper, etc.). The geologic truth is that our resources are unlimited for all practical purposes. Most people do not understand that richness of resources controls price and value, and we simply run out of resources that we are willing or able to afford. During the oil embargo and consequent price rise, we conserved. Now, during the lowest prices in recent history, we use oil freely. Technology provides resource alternatives when the marketplace demands them.

Possible global climate change is a another wonderful case in point. There is hysteria about the catastrophic changes humankind is wreaking on humankind as we may change our global climate through anthropogenic activities. Yet, we ignore that the only evidence for climate change is increased CO2 in the atmosphere. The climate has not yet changed. Greenland ice cores have provided striking information that makes our present CO2 issue pale. The amplitude of earth climate variation documented in the Greenland ice core is great, but more important, the core documents two major human-interest issues: The last 8000 years have been remarkably stable in climate, compared to all previous time. Human civilization has evolved in the last 8000 years without regard to the natural climatic cycles of the past, but will almost certainly have to engineer society to survive the swings that will occur. The swings tend to occur with changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which took place before civilization as well as now. Second, the climate changes did not take centuries to evolve, they have taken place in decades (7).

John S. Perry recently wrote for the National Academy's Board on Global Change, "yet each year will bring a new environmental crisis clamoring for redress in political councils - ozone depletion last year; climate this year, invasion of exotic species, ground water quality, chemical time bombs, tropospheric ozone, and so on in years to come"(8).

It is possible to sponsor issues for personal or professional gain. There is much research money to be gained if your issue is perceived to be the "catastrophe of the year." Therefore all issues and solutions should be questioned, specifically targeting the beneficiaries of proposed policy. Some questions to be asked could include:

  1. Is "Who benefits" identified, along with "who loses?"
  2. Why is the action necessary?
  3. Is the scale of action appropriate to the scale of long-term effects?
  4. Are positive effects fairly distributed to all citizens?
  5. Is any group unfairly bearing the costs?
  6. "Subsidy" policy changes have greatest effects on consumers, not industries. Will they be bearable?
  7. Are the proposed changes scientifically sound or else scientifically innocuous?
  8. Will the action precipitate a worse problem?
  9. Are anthropogenic effects carefully separated from natural effects?

Environmental action requires high quality and holistic science.

Perhaps most important to us who work as scientists, there must be scientific integrity in the law and rule-making process. Legal language must be scientifically valid, Machevellian attitudes must be suppressed, and arguments based more upon scientific validity of issues rather than emotional sympathy. The earth is a planet, a solid body of minerals that happens to have a thin envelope of fluids in which we are evolved. That is our final constraint. It is incumbent upon us, geologists, to confront inadequate, dishonest, and poor science.

The legal language of the Endangered Species Act contains a scientifically fraudulent definition of species, and does not provide at all for examination of the basis of designation of therein defined species (9). The Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for contamination that are measurement-technology-based, rather than based upon actual knowledge of compounds human effects or human evolutionary tolerance. The popular literature is filled with inaccuracies and innuendo. The latest Energy Information Administration summary of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is a significant illustration of the problems of inaccuracies, innuendo, and misinformation (10).


As a broadly educated geologist and natural scientist, I am most concerned with the issues revolving around the access to and extraction of earth resources, while cognizant of the broad chemical and biologic questions being raised. I am confused by rhetoric, rhetoric that decries the mere presence of humankind on earth while ignoring the explosive growth of global population and unwilling to address the issue. I am confused by those who purport to investigate the scientific issues of environment, while choosing, against advice, to ignore the fundamental geological controls on global environment and biodiversity. I resent the regressive nature of current environmental policy that places a disproportionate share of environmental costs upon those least able to afford to pay.

The nation needs environmental leadership that can make positive advances, that can encompass all of its citizens, and be open to public scrutiny. We must strive to improve the process that develops our environmental policy. Our economy must be able to support the environmental costs, and provide for standard of living in addition to the environmental quality of life. We must develop policy that reflects a consensus of the people, and that encourages enthusiastic support and compliance. Setting standards, insisting upon high standards of ethics and truth, allowing for regional differences, and providing frameworks for evaluation of issues and results are crucial to long-term success. We have not yet reached these goals.


The data used in this paper was extracted from a data base on environmental issues constructed by Bobette Puderbaugh, whose assistance and discussions have been invaluable to the writer.


(1) Ward, Bud, 1993, The Media Turn Skeptical: The Environmental Forum, v. 10, n. 4, p. 4.

(2) The Anchorage Times, 1993, Fighting Back: reprinted from The Anchorage Daily News by The Professional Geologist, v. 30, n. 12, p. 21.

(3) Gerhard, Lee, and Bobette Puderbaugh, 1993, Earth Resources and Society: Kansas Geological Survey, Open File Rept. 93-10, 17 p.

(4) Brimelow, Peter, and Leslie Spencer, 1992, You Can't Get There From Here: Forbes Magazine, July 6, 1992, p. 59-64.

(5) Gerhard, Lee C., 1993, Earth Resources and Society, as summarized in Energy & Minerals Field Notes, Energy and Minerals Field Institute, V. 10, n. 2, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO. Full text is available as: Gerhard, Lee C., 1993, Earth Resources. Public Information, and Education: The Issue: Kansas Geological Survey, Open File Rept. 93-9, 7 p.

(6) Heidelberg Appeal, 1992, Beware of False Gods in Rio: The Professional Geologist, v. 30, n. 12, p. 15.

(7) Dansgaard, W., et al., 1993, Evidence for General Instability of Past Climate from a 250-kyr Ice-core Record: Nature, V. 364, p. 218-220.
Mayewski, P. A., 1993, Greenland Ice Core "Signal" Characteristics: An Expanded View of Climate Change: Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 98, n. D7, p. 12,839-12,847.

(8) Perry, John S., 1992, The United States Global Change Research Program: National Research Council, National Academy Press, 20 p.

(9) The Endangered Species Act (P. L. 93-205, approved December 28, 1973; as amended by P.L. 100-707, approved November 23,1988)(16 U.S.C. §§1531-1543), §1532. Definition of species starts out as "Species is defined as subspecies … and population segments that interbreed when mature."

(10) Energy Information Administration, 1993, Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States, 1985-1990: DOE/EIA-0573, 99 p.
This report contains carefully couched language in its summary that includes several "mays" and "mights" that clearly serve to indicate that greenhouse effects are very serious, without providing any substantiation for that implied threat. Chapter One is titled "Greenhouse Gases and Global Climate Change" but demonstrates no change. "Enteric fermentation" (read: cow gas) is listed as the number two anthropogenic source of greenhouse methane, but no mention is made of the large amount of methane created by the sum total of all the other herbivores in the world! Finally, although not a greenhouse gas, in this chapter a paragraph is dedicated to ozone that states "Ozone is an extremely potent greenhouse gas … " No further mention of ozone occurs in the report, but the misinformation is planted.

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