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America's Environmental Report Card

America's Environmental Report Card: Are We Making the Grade?

Harvey Blatt
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    America's Environmental Report Card
    Book Description:

    Americans are concerned about the state of the environment, and yet polls show that many have lost faith in both scientists' and politicians' ability to solve environmental problems. In America's Environmental Report Card, Harvey Blatt sorts through the deluge of conflicting information about the environment and offers an accessible overview of the environmental issues that are most important to Americans today. Blatt has thoroughly updated this second edition, revising and adding new material. He looks at water supplies and new concerns about water purity; the dangers of floods (increased by widespread logging and abetted by glacial melting); infrastructure problems (in a new chapter devoted entirely to this subject); the leaching of garbage buried in landfills; soil, contaminated crops, and organic food; fossil fuels; alternative energy sources (in another new chapter); controversies over nuclear energy; the increasing pace of climate change; and air pollution. Along the way, he outlines ways to deal with these problems--workable and reasonable solutions that map the course to a sustainable future. America can lead the way to a better environment, Blatt argues. We are the richest nation in the world, and we can afford it--in fact, we can't afford not to.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29552-9
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xiv)

    Don’t blow it. Good planets are hard to find.

    Since publication of the first edition of this book in 2005, the volume of material on the environment has continued to mushroom. Chief among this increase have been the twin issues of energy sources and climate change. These two issues are intimately intertwined because the coal used to generate almost half of America’s electric power, 80 percent of China’s, and 56 percent of India’s, together with the gasoline used to fuel the ever-expanding number of automobiles, generate most of the carbon dioxide that most climate scientists believe is the main anthropogenic...

  5. 1 Water: No Cholesterol, Fat Free, Zero Sugar
    (pp. 1-34)

    The amount of water used in the United States is staggering. In 2005, it was 410 million gallonsper day, not including the 15 to 20 percent lost to leaky pipes. Total consumption has varied by only 3 percent since 1990. Per capita use peaked in 1970 at 1,815 gallons but has since declined continuously to 1,363 in 2005, a result of conservation by industry, agriculture, and home owners (table 1.1). Power plants use about half of the 410 million gallons, agriculture 31 percent, homes and businesses use 11 percent, and the remaining 8 percent includes use by mining, livestock,...

  6. 2 Infrastructure: Pipes, Wires, Roads, Bridges, Railroads, Dams, Airports, and Levees
    (pp. 35-62)

    Infrastructurerefers to the basic constructed features that undergird our civilization: water and sewer mains, gas and liquid transmission lines, electrical grid, highways, bridges, railroads, dams, airports, and levees. Collectively they are calledpublic works, although they may be developed and operated by either the private sector or government. When proposed by the federal government, they often are referred to as “pork barrel” projects or “earmarks”—projects proposed by members of Congress to enhance their state’s industry, attractiveness, or culture and improve the legislator’s chances of being reelected. Although the beneficiaries of these projects are mostly or entirely the legislator’s constituency,...

  7. 3 Floods: When the Levees Break
    (pp. 63-82)

    Two of the worst naturally occurring environmental disasters in U.S. history are the 1993 flood in the Mississippi River and the 2005 flooding in New Orleans that resulted from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Each of these floods was extremely costly, causing tens of billions and even hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, as well as loss of life and property. Worldwide since 1980, hurricane numbers have nearly doubled, and the frequency of floods has more than tripled.¹ These data give rise to the suspicion that climate changes may be the cause of the increases. Both hurricanes and river floods...

  8. 4 Garbage: Trash Talk
    (pp. 83-104)

    If there were an entry in the annual Guinness World Records book for milestones in garbage, the United States would certainly be represented. Our production of municipal solid waste, known colloquially as trash or garbage, increased from 2.7 pounds per person per day in 1960 to 3.7 in 1980 to 4.6 pounds per person per day in 2007 (table 4.1).¹ This is twice the amount produced by other industrialized countries such as Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, France, or Japan and 20 percent more than Norway, Switzerland, or Denmark. We are the world’s most wasteful society. The figure of more than...

  9. 5 Soil, Crops, and Food: Dirt and Nutrition
    (pp. 105-136)

    Most Americans take food for granted. We are so used to warehouse-size supermarkets, shelves groaning under the weight of mostly unnecessary and unhealthy products, and the continual availability of out-of-season fruits and vegetables that we rarely think about the farms that produced them, the countries they came from, or the soil in which they grew. There is an almost total disconnect between food producers and food consumers. Few of us are aware that most farmers today must go to the supermarket to buy food, just like the 98 percent of Americans who are not farmers. Farmers journey to the supermarket...

  10. 6 Fossil Fuels: Energy from the Past
    (pp. 137-178)

    Presidents going back to Richard Nixon have been talking about energy independence. It has an appeal to the American public equal to world peace, mom, and apple pie. It gives people a feeling of control, or possible control, of our energy future. And energy supplies are critical to the nation’s continued development. But the concept of self-sufficiency for the United States is an illusion. It is unlikely to happen during the lifetime of anyone now living.

    Oil is the dominant fuel in the U.S. energy market, meeting 37 percent of our total energy needs. American oil production peaked in 1970...

  11. 7 Alternative Energy Sources: Energy for the Future
    (pp. 179-214)

    Numerous sources of commercial energy other than fossil fuels are available, but only recently have they received more than scant attention from the government because of the ready availability and low cost of coal, natural gas, and oil, and the low cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced from power plants fueled by these fossil fuels. However, because of environmental concerns about coal and the rapidly rising prices for oil and natural gas, it is apparent that substitutes for these venerable fuels are needed. The Department of Energy forecasts that renewable alternatives will provide 21 percent of America’s energy by 2030,...

  12. 8 The Nuclear Energy Controversy: Radiation for Everyone
    (pp. 215-240)

    The energy that can be released from nuclear reactions was introduced to the public in 1945 when two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan to end World War II. Nine years later, the first nuclear plant that produced electricity for commercial use started operating in Russia. The number and generating power of commercial nuclear facilities grew rapidly during the 1970s, from a generating capacity of 16 gigawatts at the start of the decade to 135 gigawatts in 1980. As of March 15, 2009, there were 436 nuclear power plants in thirty-one countries with a net installed electric capacity of about...

  13. 9 Climate Change: What Have We Done?
    (pp. 241-276)

    After what seemed like interminable wrangling over the reality of climate change, the debate seems to have subsided. The evidence for global warming, the most publicized sign of the change, is now so overwhelming that even most of the hardened skeptics are onboard.

    Arguments have raged for years about the adequacy and reliability of numerical data and computer modeling, but biological evidence cannot be refuted or doubted. The behavior of both plants and animals, which cannot lie, cannot be deceptive, and is unaffected by emotionally or politically based points of view, is totally convincing (table 9.1). Recognizing this, the hardiness...

  14. 10 Air Pollution: Lung Disease
    (pp. 277-300)

    The topic of air pollution cannot be completely separated from that of climate change. The carbon dioxide and methane gases that we spew into the air that are thought by most climatologists to be responsible for most climate change are pollutants, things not naturally in the air in such concentrations.

    However, when air pollution is discussed, the emphasis is not on changes in global temperature and precipitation but on what is in the 3,400 gallons of air, 7 quarts per minute, that we inhale every day. The emphasis is on the maintenance of good health, in both humans and the...

  15. 11 Conclusion: Is There Hope?
    (pp. 301-320)

    The key concept for everything that lives, plant or animal, is sustainability: satisfying daily needs without compromising the future of their descendants. An important distinction in this regard is the difference between needs and wants. Only a tiny percentage of Americans have real needs—those for adequate food, shelter, and clothing. However, they have an infinitely expanding and insatiable number of wants: new cars, fashionable clothes, expensive jewelry, trips to exotic locations, larger houses, and tastier food in pricier restaurants, to name a few. The futile attempt to satisfy these wants is the cause, either directly or indirectly, of most...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 321-352)
  17. Additional Readings
    (pp. 353-362)
  18. Index
    (pp. 363-367)