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How Might Henry Ford Evaluate Ecological Impacts?

November 15, 2018

By Gino Giumarro
Senior Biologist, Environmental Division

This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.

In 1969, Cleveland Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire for the tenth time. The event captivated the nation. Against the backdrop of Vietnam protests and civil rights unrest, there were now conversations about the quality of our environment. Many trace the beginnings of the U.S. environmental movement to this event.

As culture changes, so too does our relationship to the environment. These changes in perspective have historically driven our decisions about what is considered an unreasonable, adverse impact on the environment.

Modern industrial worldview

Prior to the 1960s, our modern industrial society viewed natural resources as commodities. They believed that science could solve issues of scarcity and harm to the environment; therefore, there was little need for regulation. For instance, that culture might say, “Don’t worry about the burning river now, we can fix it tomorrow.”

This explains why, prior to1960, there were only four major pieces of legislation that framed most environmental standards: Refuse Act (1899), Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1948), and the Air Pollution Control Act (1955).

In the mid-1900s, environmental regulations were based on the belief that science would be able to consistently and predictably manage natural resources. The modern world image of the environment was managed by state and federal agencies, industry, and a loose group of environmental organizations. Any unreasonable, adverse impact on the environment would be scientifically determined by those in charge. This view of the environment was “consumed” by the public with little differentiation.

A striking analogy of this relationship could be seen in the Ford Motor Company’s model of car production. In 1913, Henry Ford introduced an assembly line that reduced the time to assemble a car by more than 10 times. Cars produced on Ford assembly lines were virtually identical in size, color, fashion, and cost. It was a market dominated by the producer, rather than the desires of the consumers.

The problem with post-Fordism

A faster model. Henry Ford’s first assembly line coined the phrase “Fordism” to describe the transformation of modern society to an economic and social system based on standardized mass production and mass consumption.

“Fordism” is a description of the productive and consumptive forces in our society and is considered a “modern” perspective. Today, these forces are dominated by the desires of consumers. Many eco-sociologists and economists describe the shift in our patterns of consumption and production as moving from a period of Fordist consumption to post-Fordist differentiated consumption.

In parallel, the western view of the natural world has also placed increasing value on acquiring individualized experiences. This new relationship with the world is often referred to as a “postmodern” era. And these changes are seen in our environmental regulations.

Regulations became specific to resources and interests. Individual resources were given protection beyond their monetary value. Between 1960 and 1990, 23 major pieces of environmental legislation passed. These included the Wilderness Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

All of society was undergoing a profound shift in the way they engaged with the world. How we viewed ourselves and made decisions changed. A new philosophy focused our attention inward, towards bettering oneself.

Society abandoned the application of deterministic, centralized science, and has become more concerned with a subjective, individualistic approach. From this perspective, nature is seen as beautiful for its collective being and its remarkable components (wildlife, vistas, forests, etc.), rather than for its utility to society.

Society constructed an aesthetic value of nature that has overshadowed utilitarian value. We see this in the growing level of individualized opposition to projects. Individuals are less interested in utilitarian reasons for advancing a project.

Weight-of-evidence─Fordist thinking

Should we remember some lessons from the Fordist world? Does science have a renewed role to play in these decisions?

For example, scientists have developed a system to clearly evaluate large amounts of environmental data used to evaluate cleanup projects. This weight-of-evidence (WoE) approach has been used by regulators to guide mediation of some of the most polluted places in the United States.

WoE is the process by which multiple measurements are related to an assessment to evaluate whether significant risk of harm is posed to the environment. WoE is reflected in three characteristics of measurement endpoints: a) the weight assigned to each measurement; b) the magnitude of response observed in the measurement; and c) the concurrence among outcomes of multiple measurements.

The WoE approach focuses on specific measurement and assessment endpoints to be used to estimate environmental risk. Assessment endpoints are the explicit expression of the environmental values to be protected, while measurement endpoints are the features for which data are collected to see if the assessment endpoint is impaired.

The problem formulation would include identification of specific exposure pathways (e.g., species near routes could be exposed to a stressor in the environment), identification of hypothetical receptors (i.e., plants or wildlife exposed to the stressors associated with the project), and selection of potential stressors to evaluate.

Is the WoE approach the right mechanism to evaluate more than just cleanup sites?

The ability of this process to consider multiple and diverse types of information and to systematically assign a value to each in a transparent fashion is seemingly the right model for evaluating a project’s potential ecological risk.

Imagine using a WoE approach for evaluating ecological risks to birds and bats in proposed wind resource areas. This technique could examine the strengths and limitations of various measurement endpoints (radar passage rates, bird flight direction, species, breeding location, flight height, mortality estimates, etc.) when determining whether a specific stressor (e.g., wind turbines) has caused or could cause an unreasonable impact to a species or group of species.

Balancing subjectivity with science

Perhaps it is time to look for a process that allows regulators and project proponents to agree on what is an “unreasonable adverse impact” through a deliberate structured method. The post-Fordist world has led to individualized relationships with the environment that have improved environmental quality and led to important regulations. Despite some of the progress we have made in environmental regulation, there are also pieces that we have forgotten in our collective quest for individuality.

I welcome having the opportunity to develop biological objectives for evaluating the potential impacts of a project and evaluating against a scientific standard. Maybe we should look back to some of the lessons of a Fordist society and recreate certainty and transparency between project developers, regulators, and the public.

About the Author:

Gino is a Certified Wildlife Biologist with more than 20 years of experience conducting natural resources investigations and permitting in the energy, government, transportation, and commercial markets. He has led multidisciplinary teams for linear project routing, siting, assessment, and associated permitting. Gino was at the forefront of developing bird and bat survey protocols for wind power assessments and in conducting wind siting assessments across the country. In addition, he has led the environmental services efforts for some of the largest pipelines and natural gas gathering systems in the country. He has specialized expertise with bird and bat surveys, with a focus on rare species surveys and consultations under the Endangered Species Act. Do you have questions for Gino? Send him an email at gino.giumarro@powereng.com.