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Protecting the Environment

Protecting the Environment

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The regulation of practices that affect the environment has been a relatively recent development in the United States, but it is a good example of government intervention in the economy for a social purpose.

Beginning in the 1960s, Americans became increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of industrial growth. Engine exhaust from growing numbers of automobiles, for instance, was blamed for smog and other forms of air pollution in larger cities. Pollution represented what economists call an externality -- a cost the responsible entity can escape but that society as a whole must bear. With market forces unable to address such problems, many environmentalists suggested that government has a moral obligation to protect the earth's fragile ecosystems -- even if doing so requires that some economic growth be sacrificed. A slew of laws were enacted to control pollution, including the 1963 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act.

Environmentalists achieved a major goal in December 1970 with the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which brought together in a single agency many federal programs charged with protecting the environment. The EPA sets and enforces tolerable limits of pollution, and it establishes timetables to bring polluters into line with standards; since most of the requirements are of recent origin, industries are given reasonable time, often several years, to conform to standards. The EPA also has the authority to coordinate and support research and anti-pollution efforts of state and local governments, private and public groups, and educational institutions. Regional EPA offices develop, propose, and implement approved regional programs for comprehensive environmental protection activities.

Data collected since the agency began its work show significant improvements in environmental quality; there has been a nationwide decline of virtually all air pollutants, for example. However, in 1990 many Americans believed that still greater efforts to combat air pollution were needed. Congress passed important amendments to the Clean Air Act, and they were signed into law by President George Bush (1989-1993). Among other things, the legislation incorporated an innovative market-based system designed to secure a substantial reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions, which produce what is known as acid rain. This type of pollution is believed to cause serious damage to forests and lakes, particularly in the eastern part of the United States and Canada.

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Next Article: Government Regulation: What's Next?

This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.

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