Social and Economic Dimensions of Environmental Change

The social and economic sciences represent a critical component of any research agenda on environmental change. The environment is home to the human activities that people have shaped to establish their communities and improve their quality of life. Neither that environment nor human activities remain static. Just as the geologic record provides a lens on changes over millennia in earth systems, so does the archaeological record contain a wealth of information on human communities under varying environmental conditions. Comparative studies of contemporary societies show that the use humans make of land impacts on the quality and availability of natural resources. What the studies reveal, too, is that the size, composition, and location of human populations both mold and are molded by environmental conditions. Finally, the research illustrates that environmental effects are not randomly distributed across societies or population groups. Essentially, research in the social and economic sciences aims to clarify how human activities affect the environment; how environmental changes affect our society and its component groups; and how we and our institutions respond to environmental change.

The extant research on land use, population change, economic incentives, cultural values, individual preferences has advanced our understanding of the interplay between human and environmental forces. It shows, for example, that people's perceptions of risk affect quite significantly their responses to hazards. There are patterns to these perceptions. Among other things, people generally regard events they control as less risky than those over which they have little influence. Needed now are analyses that translate findings from across the social, economic, and other sciences into temporal and territorial scales that are meaningful for human and community activity.

Industrial societies have developed an array of instruments to prevent or mitigate the impacts of environmental dislocations. These societies seek the same end through the development of technologies that are benign to the environment, or that remediate environmental problems. What remains to be deciphered are the conditions that permit the effective development and deployment of innovative technologies and instruments of public policy.

Research Needs for Social and Economic Dimensions
of Environmental Change

Environmental Goals

The CENR strives to mobilize the resources of the social and economic sciences to answer central questions about the relationship between human behavior, well-being, and the environment. Federally sponsored research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences provides a foundation on which knowledge about the interaction of human, physical, and biological systems can be built. This research aids in the design and evaluation of environmental policies, enhances understanding of the role of human activity for critical environmental issues, and helps to identify issues and policies that can affect the highest social and economic returns.

Key Policy Objectives

Efforts to improve environmental management and regulation have evolved over the past two decades, a period of profound social and economic change in the United States and elsewhere. Stronger economic bonds around the globe, and acknowledgement that environmental problems transcend borders, have changed the landscape for research and policy. Industrial and industrializing nations increasingly recognize the importance of common solutions that can ease environmental threats without exacerbating regional and local disparities.

Policies about the environment do not occur in isolation from other policy questions. Communities across the United States struggle to determine levels of acceptable risks for pesticides; the regulations appropriate for protecting fisheries and marine life; and mechanisms for preserving jobs and protecting endangered species. The social and economic sciences cannot resolve such policy dilemmas. These sciences can contribute, however, by identifying innovative policy options and management strategies, and specifying their trade-offs, options, and their probable consequences.

Areas of Enhanced Emphasis

Long-term research is needed on human-environmental interactions and system dynamics. Their complexity requires greater collaboration of physical, life, and engineering scientists with social scientists than usually prevails. Greater expertise is needed, too, on the diversity of values that drive environmental concerns, that affect preferences and trade-offs, and that govern resource use and management.

Selected Milestones, 1995 - 1998

Research Successes - Social and Economic Dimensions of Environmental Change

Environmental Technology

As the world's population and economies grow, there will be increasing stress placed on both natural and human systems. Technology will play a critical role in mitigating these pressures and in allowing our society to provide key goods and services with reduced environmental impacts. The primary goal of this research strategy is to develop environmental technologies that increase our productivity, reduce environmental problems, and create wealth and jobs. This goal cannot be accomplished by the federal government alone but will require a broad range of partnerships and integrated policies to ensure that our investments in R&D result in environmentally efficient products and services for both the U.S. and global markets. We are committed to building those partnerships both within the government and with industry, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and state and local governments.

Research Needs for Environmental Technology

Besides providing the knowledge base for developing environmentally sound technologies, research is also needed to help us achieve a better understanding of various technological options, their costs, and benefits. Our long-term research therefore addresses predictive modeling and assessment to determine where environmental technologies might best be deployed and how they might perform.

International coordination of R&D programs through the efforts of the Committee on International Science, Engineering, and Technology will help ensure cross-fertilization and cooperation with R&D in other countries. Consideration of global technology needs, such as special needs of developing countries for sustainable technologies, will help broaden the applicability of technology research results.

Finally, a significant cost to the nation's economy is incurred by cleaning up wastes already in the environment from past actions and inefficiencies in earlier systems of production. Estimates for the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites and inactive federal facilities, for example, range from $100 billion to $1 trillion over the next 20 years. Research to find cost-effective site characterization and remediation technologies is an important element in this strategy.

Over the coming decades, R&D will be the key to establishing new technological solutions and environmental management options. As the Vice President recently remarked, . . . we must shift to fundamentally new technology trajectories rather than just increase our pace along the same old technological paths. The enabling knowledge for the next generation of environmental technologies and practices is being built now in our laboratories, universities, and classrooms. This strategy seeks to capitalize on our innovative capacity and provide the technological solutions to existing and future environmental challenges.

Environmental Goals

The Administration supports the development of innovative technologies for improving environmental quality, sustaining our natural resource base, and contributing to long-term economic growth and job creation. To maintain its strength over the coming decades, the U.S. economy must be able to deliver high-quality products and services to domestic and world markets with significantly less energy and material inputs and a dramatic decrease in environmental impacts. Environmental technologies and practices are needed to increase the overall productivity of our energy, food, manufacturing, transportation, building, and service sectors by significantly reducing energy, materials, and other inputs. Environmental technologies also are needed to heal harm from past process inefficiencies.

Key Policy Objectives

Avoiding successive generations of technology-induced environmental problems is one of the greatest challenges facing our research enterprise. The transformation of environmentally sound ideas into innovations (and eventually marketable commodities and practices) typically takes 5 to 15 years. In the case of large physical infrastructures that deliver our energy, food, water, and transportation services, the substitution of new technologies often requires 40 to 50 years. Clearly, the economic costs of traveling down any number of suboptimal, unsustainable technology paths is high.

The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) report Technology for a Sustainable Future sketches a long-term scenario (30 to 40 years) that emphasizes a move away from cleanup and control to a future built on anticipation, avoidance, and assessment. The report emphasizes the need to develop more cost-effective means to remediate existing environmental problems in the short term, while shifting to a new avoidance trajectory. The diffusion of new technologies into the marketplace should be accelerated through partnerships with industry, state and local governments, academia, and nongovernmental organizations. Our challenge is to speed the evolution from pollution control and waste management to avoidance of environmental harm and resource conservation and restoration, while continuing to aggressively clean up existing environmental hazards.

Environmental technology research addresses a wide range of environmental problems by increasing environmental and resource-use efficiency of production processes, developing new approaches for remediating and restoring damaged systems, and improving our ability to monitor and assess the environmental impacts of technological innovation and interventions (both real and proposed).

Areas of Enhanced Emphasis

Research priorities reflect the need to deal cost effectively with today's environmental harm while exploring and shifting to new system paradigms that avoid environmental harm.

Selected Milestones

Research Successes - Environmental Technology

Chapter 4 (continued)