The Man at Work Collection--Studies in Sustainability

Installment Twelve:  “It’s Just Good Business—Making the Business Case for Sustainable Practices”

  By Deborah L Jackman, PhD, PE, LEED AP™

The Money Lenders

Oil on Panel

  by Quinten Massys (1465/66-1530)



          In Europe during the Middle Age and Renaissance the Roman Catholic Church condemned money lending (usury).  Christians were forbidden to engage in banking and related occupations.  Yet, sources of capital were required to fund businesses and to advance society, just as they are today.  Thus, our subject painting depicts Jewish money lenders, whose religion did not forbid them from engaging in this practice.  While money lending activities conducted by Jews led some Christians to perceive the money lenders negatively, and in some cases led to anti-Semitism, the ‘Money Lenders’ were providing a vital service, without which much of the scientific and cultural innovation and global exploration, which characterized that period in history, could not have happened. Back then, as now, technology and culture could not advance on merit alone, but required the support and backing of the business community.  


          In this series of essays, we have explored ways to promote sustainability in human society and to help ensure the future of the Earth’s ecosystems.   I have used selected works of art from the Man at Work collection as a springboard for discussing these issues.  It is appropriate, therefore, that in this final essay of the series, I use The Money Lenders as a vehicle to discuss the essential role that business has in ensuring that we are able to transform our society into a sustainable one. 


Profit and Sustainability-- Not at Odds:

          Within the capitalist system, businesses are motivated by the ability to make a profit.   To the degree that incorporating sustainable practices can increase profitability and financial position, businesses will embrace the sustainable business model. Since environmental degradation continues across most economic sectors, can one therefore conclude that sustainability is fundamentally at odds with profitability?   The answer to this question is a resounding ‘No’!  The key to understanding this apparent inconsistency lies in differentiating between the short term view of maximizing quarterly profits, and a longer term view that values more moderate profits combined with the goal of long-term business stability and viability. 


          In the past, the short term “profit at all costs” model has prevailed in most large corporations.  CEOs have been disproportionately judged on how high their quarterly profits are. This has led some business leaders to forego investments directed at ensuring long term viability. One can argue that this short term profit mindset is a perversion of capitalism, because it incentivizes behaviors that make the long term survivability of businesses and the overall health of the economy problematic.   If one accounts for business costs and revenues using a life cycle cost model, a more nuanced view emerges.  In a life cycle cost model, up-front investments (costs), such as upgrading production equipment to be more energy or water efficient, are balanced against later operational cost savings.  Using the life cycle costing model, it is possible to justify system upgrades that improve overall sustainability because it can be shown that these same upgrades increase the profitability of the company over its life cycle.  When viewed in this way, profitability and sustainability become complementary to each other. 

          Yet, isn’t it human nature to ‘take the bird in the hand’ and to seek higher profits over the short term regardless of possible long term consequences?   After all, there is no guarantee of what the future holds.  It is this very aspect of human psychology that has supported the current system focused on short term profits over one focused on long term sustainability for so long.  But, there have been several paradigm shifts recently that are forcing businesses to take the longer view and to consider environmental impacts in their decision making. These paradigm shifts include:


  1. The recognition on the part of business of the huge financial risks they take by not addressing incipient environmental hazards proactively.
  2. Increased pressure from consumers, investors, and insurers for businesses to behave in an environmentally responsible manner.
  3. The increasing costs of natural resources and raw materials needed by businesses.
  4. New markets and business opportunities which have arisen precisely because of the need to address the consequences of wide-spread environmental degradation.

          The first paradigm shift is well illustrated in the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.  According to a recent New York Times article [1], BP has already spent $28 billion dollars in clean up costs and settlements, has had to divest itself of 10% of its oil and gas holdings, and is currently facing additional US government fines of $18 billion dollars as a result of a court finding of gross negligence. In light of this, the future of BP as a corporation is in doubt.   BP was found to be grossly negligent because it used shoddy operational practices during attempts to shut down the rig and skimped on lab tests which would have indicated before the explosion occurred that key physical indicators inside the drilling rig were reaching dangerous levels.   BP managers believed they were saving money by cutting corners.  In the short term, they may have done so, but in the long term, their actions may well drive BP into bankruptcy.  In the wake of the BP disaster, more and more corporations have begun to include environmental risk management in their bottom line calculations.  

         Second, consumers and investors are becoming increasingly willing to “vote with their feet,” and not patronize or invest in companies with poor records of environmental stewardship.  While this has led some companies to engage in “greenwashing,” a practice in which companies make superficial changes to their operations in an effort to court environmentally conscious consumers, it has also caused a number of companies to make genuine efforts to improve their operations in meaningful ways.   In 2007, Goldman Sachs released a report on a new initiative it was launching called GS Sustain [2].  Investment analysts at Goldman Sachs had created an index to rank corporations on their commitment to helping to address global environmental issues. Preliminary review of market data by Goldman Sachs had concluded that companies with a strong commitment toward addressing global environmental issues had stock valuations which were 25% higher on average than companies of similar size in the same sector without such a commitment.  A 2012 white paper [3] by the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group, also confirmed this correlation between good environmental performance and good financial performance. 


          Large insurance companies and their underwriters, the reinsurance industry, readily acknowledge the effects of climate change, even if some in the American political Right still deny them [4].  Large reinsurance companies in Europe such as Munich Re and Swiss Re are active participants in global initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Several American insurance companies have begun to challenge local zoning ordinances that allow continued development along coastal regions because they acknowledge the reality of rising sea levels and the increased severity of storms caused by climate change.  And, insurers have begun charging corporate clients who are not managing their environmental risks appropriately higher premiums.  To insurers, the financial and economic impacts of environmental degradation and global climate change are very real indeed. 


          Relative to the third major paradigm shift, the same Goldman Sachs study cited earlier [2] also discusses that, in the opinion of its analysts, the world has reached a tipping point in terms to the availability and affordability of natural resources, and that in the future, businesses must consider environmental impacts as a fundamental parameter in their strategic decisions.  In particular, looming global water shortages and shortages of clean sources of energy are cited as critical factors.  In light of this, water reuse and conservation, increased energy conservation and development of clean energy sources, and recycling of raw materials will become not only important for the global environment, but will be critical to a business’ bottom line. Very telling are the actions taken in 2013 by SC Johnson Company to negotiate long term contracts with renewable energy providers as a hedge against future energy price volatility. Forty percent of all of SC Johnson’s energy requirements are now supplied by renewable sources [5].  Campbell’s Soup has earned a 15 to 20 percent internal rate of return on investments it has made to upgrade plant energy systems and to conserve water along its entire supply chain [5].  Southwest Airlines has an aggressive program in place to increase fuel efficiency and touts having saved 60 million gallons of jet fuel in 2013. It boasted record revenues of $17.7 billion during this same period [6]. Similar examples involving other prominent companies abound.


           Finally, as global environmental problems have escalated and the effects of climate change have become more pronounced, new market opportunities are emerging and entrepreneurs are devising ways to profit from them.  In his fascinating book, Windfall: the Booming Business of Global Warming [7], McKenzie Funk describes a number of entrepreneurs across the globe who are structuring business plans around the effects of global warming—rising sea levels, droughts, and floods.  Dutch architects and engineers, who have centuries of experience in designing flood control systems to hold back the North Sea, are marketing their services to coastal countries and municipalities.   Greenland, whose lands were previously locked in permafrost, is now making plans, in light of the thawing tundra, to harvest minerals previously inaccessible.   Private firefighting companies are securing lucrative contracts with a number of California counties and municipalities seeking to protect themselves from the increasing threat of wildfires brought on by persistent droughts.  Funk cites many more examples and his book is definitely worth reading.      


Some Tools for Making the Business Case:

          Even though ample evidence exists that sustainable operating practices make good business sense overall, one must still build the case for investing in them in specific business situations under a particular set of business conditions. Otherwise, a company’s senior management or its investors are likely to remain skeptical.  In recent years, a number of financial models and tools have been developed to help model the economic impacts of various environmental factors and to calculate the rates of return associated with various sustainable design options.


          The Forum for the Future [8] is a non-profit organization founded in 1996 and headquartered in the United Kingdom.  Its mission is to assist organizations across the globe in finding ways to create a sustainable future.  One key area of focus is to develop tools that organizations can use to justify the adoption of sustainable practices from a financial perspective. To this end, Forum for the Future has developed the Better Decisions Real Value (BDRV) Toolkit [9].  The BDRV Toolkit describes methodologies that can be used to financially justify capital investments designed to improve operational efficiency.  It was developed by Forum for the Future with input from a number of corporate partners including Unilever and AkzoNobel.  In one case study, Sainsbury’s, a large supermarket chain located in the UK, used the methods contained in the BDRV toolkit to justify capital improvements that improved the energy efficiency of its retail stores [10].


          Even the accountants are getting into the act.  The Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO) is a group that was formed in 1985 at the request of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to help formulate accounting standards to prevent fraudulent financial reporting.   Over the years, they have been involved in the development of a number of policies and standards related to good accounting practices. Recently, they have published a report [11] which explains how to integrate the “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profits into a corporation’s risk management program.         

Final Thoughts:  

          The figure of speech, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none,’ is usually used as a pejorative.  Our society respects experts, especially technical experts, many of whom are expert in increasingly specialized and narrow fields.  The importance of the generalist—the person who understands aspects of many different fields—both technical and non-technical--and how they are interconnected—is sometimes downplayed.  Yet, if we are to successfully address the serious environmental challenges we face today we must take a broad and inter-disciplinary approach because the problems are multi-faceted and cross disciplinary lines. Today’s successful business leaders are well-positioned to lead these efforts.   Not only can they leverage needed financial support but they also have the needed mindset.  According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review [12], the most successful business people tend to be generalists—the very same trait needed to effectively address complex environmental issues.  While we certainly need scientists and engineers to analyze problems and to propose solutions, artists and writers to inspire us to act, and statesmen (but not partisan demagogues) to guide our political institutions, the involvement of the business community is essential in the context of our capitalist system.  If we work collaboratively, we might just have a fighting chance to reverse the devastating environmental consequences of 19th and 20th century industrialization.  

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Adam Smith


I wish to express my appreciation to the following individuals for their support during the writing of this essay series:


  • To Mr. James Kieselburg, Director of the Grohmann Museum--for sharing his expertise of the Man at Work collection.  James’ insights on the history behind the works of art and the artists, and his knowledge of the collection, were invaluable in helping me identify which works best characterized the topics about which I wrote. 


  • To Dr. Eckhart G. Grohmann—for his generosity in donating the Man at Work collection to the Milwaukee School of Engineering, so that its students and faculty, could learn from it; and for granting permission to use the collection as a basis for these essays.


References and Further Reading:

  1. Robertson, C., and Krauss, C., "BP May Be Fined Up to $18 Billion for Spill in Gulf," The New York Times, September 4, 2014. Retrieved 14 February 2015.
  2. “Introducing GS SUSTAIN,” Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research, June 27, 2007. , retrieved 10 February, 2015.
  3. The Business Case for Sustainability,  International Finance Corporation—World Bank Group, Washington D.C., July 2012. 
  4. Porter, E., “For Insurers, No Doubts on Climate Change,” The New York Times, May 14, 2013, , retrieved 20 February, 2015. 
  5. Kaye, L., “The Business Case for Sustainability is Becoming Easier to Make,” The TriplePundit—People, Planet, Profit, March 15, 2013. , retrieved 17 February, 2015. 
  6. “Southwest Airlines Releases Fifth Annual Integrated Report On Triple Bottom Line Of Performance, People, And Planet:  2013 Southwest Airlines One Report™ Adheres to Global Reporting Initiative Guidelines,” June 17, 2014. , retrieved 15 February, 2015.
  7. Funk, McKenzie, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, Penguin Press, 2014.
  8. Forum for the Future organization website, , retrieved March 1, 2015. 
  9. Better Decisions Real Value Toolkit homepage, , retrieved March 1, 2015.
  10. “Case Study: Understanding Decision Making at Sainsbury’s,” , retrieved March 1, 2015.
  11. “Demystifying Sustainability Risk: Integrating the Triple Bottom Line Into an Enterprise Risk Management Program,” COSO, 2013. , retrieved February 22, 2015.
  12. Mansharamani, V., “Hail the Generalist,” Harvard Business Review, June 4, 2012. , retrieved 20 February, 2015.          

The Man at Work Collection--Studies in Sustainability

Installment Eleven:  “Sustainability in the Pharmaceutical Industry”

  By Deborah L Jackman, PhD, PE, LEED AP™

The Apothecary.jpg

The Apothecary

by Vida Gabor, oil on panel


          The use of herbs and other animal and plant extracts to treat disease is as old as human civilization. The Bible states,


“And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food….  Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” (Ezekiel 47:12, ESV)


Yet, prior to the middle of the 19th Century, medicines were largely formulated and dispensed locally by traditional herbalists, shamans, chemists, and physicians, using naturally derived (i.e. non-synthetic) ingredients.  The pharmaceutical manufacturing industry as we now know it, where drugs are chemically synthesized and manufactured in bulk at a centralized location and then dispensed through local pharmacies, began in the late 1800s, as an off shoot of the nascent synthetic chemical industry that began in Europe (especially in Germany). Today’s retail pharmacies do little of their own drug formulation, acting instead as a point of distribution of drugs which are centrally manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.  The subject painting, The Apothecary, represents the transitional period, spanning a period of roughly the middle 19th through the middle 20th century, during which druggists (i.e. apothecaries), who were trained in chemistry and basic pharmacology, sold both pre-manufactured drugs and “patent” medicines, but also formulated drugs in-house to sell to local clientele. The assortment of chemicals, weigh scales, flasks, and other chemical paraphernalia displayed in the painting are evidence of the technical skills of the resident apothecary in formulating drugs for his customers.   In addition to providing medicines to his customers, this apothecary likely knew his customers on a first name basis and could offer them moral support and a sympathetic ear.  Today’s “Big Pharma” can offer us none of the human touch and compassion that the apothecary could offer, yet as a tradeoff, we can be assured of the efficacy and safety of the medicines we consume.  For every traditional potion and drug formulation that healed our ancestors, there were many based on faulty science and superstition which poisoned or even killed. Arguably, we are in a much better place, in the early 21st century, in terms of having access to effective and life-saving drugs than at any time in human history.  Yet, as with most technological advancements, there are also downsides. In addition to the loss of the “personal touch” that the apothecary could offer, Big Pharma has also introduced negative environmental impacts.

          The significance of the negative environmental impacts for which the pharmaceutical industry is responsible is magnified by the sheer size of the industry. In 2012, nearly ten percent of all money spent on healthcare in the United States was spent on prescription drugs.  Out of the $2.8 trillion dollars spent on healthcare overall, $263.3 billion dollars were used to purchase prescription drugs. [1]   The pharmaceutical industry is big business, and like most big businesses, it has a huge environmental footprint.  However, unlike many other industries, it has been relatively slow in recognizing and addressing its negative environmental impacts. The reasons for this tardiness are complex--the conservative nature of the healthcare community overall; large profit margins that until recently were largely unquestioned and which led to a degree complacency within the industry; and little public recognition of environmental threats unique to pharma--among others.  In marketing products that have such a direct impact on human health, pharmaceutical manufacturers have been understandably cautious in changing manufacturing operations or processes that could in some way negatively impact product quality.  This means that some of the techniques (for improving operational energy efficiency and minimizing pollution through the substitution of less toxic raw materials) that have become commonplace in the broader chemical industry, have been slow to arrive within Big Pharma.  Historically high profit margins and little government scrutiny of drug costs meant that many energy conservation strategies that both reduce manufacturing costs and reduce the operational carbon footprint, and which have been broadly employed within the larger manufacturing sector, are only now being adopted by the pharmaceutical industry.  And, until recently, the general public has been largely unaware of the dangers related to drugs entering surface waters through sewage treatment systems and persisting in the environment. However, the landscape is now changing and the pharmaceutical industry is being forced to more carefully consider its environmental impacts.  It is slowly and cautiously undertaking a “greening” of its operations.  This article will explore the negative environment impacts of the pharmaceutical industry and will look at recent initiatives intended to reduce these negative impacts.


Environmental Impacts of the Pharmaceutical Industry:

          As noted earlier, the modern pharmaceutical industry is an off shoot of the synthetic organic chemical industry.  Many of the same chemical techniques used to manufacture industrial solvents, coatings, paints, and plastics are used by the pharmaceutical industry to manufacture drugs.  Thus, it is not surprising that many of the same environmental issues that occur in chemical manufacturing affect the pharmaceutical industry:  high energy costs and a large carbon footprint, the treatment and disposal costs associated with contaminated waste water streams, the safe handling and disposal of toxic solvents, air emissions, etc.  Solutions to these environmental challenges were originally pioneered by the broader chemical manufacturing industry and are well documented. They can be translated relatively easily into solutions applicable to pharmaceutical plants.  For a sampling of the ways in which the pharmaceutical industry has adapted environmental controls and waste minimization strategies borrowed from the broader chemical manufacturing industry, the reader is encouraged to review references [2] through [5].  References [2] and [3] focus on reducing energy consumption as a means of reducing the carbon footprint of a pharmaceutical plant through HVAC system improvements and process energy recovery strategies, respectively. Reference [4] discusses the use of a life-cycle assessment tool, the Fast Life-cycle Assessment of Synthetic Chemistry (FLASCTM ) to quantify the broader environmental impacts of a pharmaceutical manufacturing operation.  FLASC allows not just the impact of energy use to be evaluated, but also the impact of toxic materials used during the manufacturing process.  Finally, reference [5] builds the all-important business case that employing “green” manufacturing strategies isn’t just good for the environment, but also leads to lower production costs and can increase profitability.    


          In addition to dealing with impacts similar to those encountered by chemical manufacturers, the pharmaceutical industry must deal with the unique environmental impacts resulting from the pharmacologically active nature of their products.  It is this second category of environmental impacts that are perhaps the greatest environmental challenge faced by pharmaceutical manufacturers today.   The health dangers associated with the unintended release of pharmacologically active substances into the environment have only recently become widely recognized and discussed.  Solutions are yet to be fully defined or implemented.  Therefore, it is this second category of environmental impacts that will be the major focus of the remainder of this essay.  


          Provisions of the Clean Water Act (CWA) mandate that industries pretreat any waste water generated by their facilities before discharging it to publically-owned treatment works (POTWs) in order to remove hazardous substances that cannot be removed or neutralized during conventional sewage treatment processes used in the POTW.  This has been the law of the land (in the United States) since the CWA was enacted by Congress in 1976.  The pharmaceutical industry is no exception.  It must pretreat its waste water to remove excessive solids, adjust water pH to relatively neutral levels, and to remove a predefined list of toxic organic chemicals and solvents, used during manufacturing processes. The list of substances that must be treated and the levels to which they must be removed are defined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Chapter 40, Part 439.   What is fascinating to note, however, is that there is no requirement within the CFR that any residue of the actual drugs produced be removed from waste water prior to discharge to the POTW.  What this means is that various drugs could be present in waste waters discharged from pharmaceutical manufacturers.  There is no guarantee that such drugs would subsequently be destroyed by the POTW prior to discharge to surface waters because conventional sewage treatment processes are not designed to break down specific drugs.  Many drugs are comprised of chemicals that are by design very stable, in order to ensure long shelf lives.  Thus, up until recently, the possibility of trace levels of drugs entering our drinking water and inadvertently being ingested by humans and animals, has not been considered by regulators or addressed in a systematic manner.


          Some pharmaceutical industry apologists have scoffed at the idea that there is any validity to the concern that so-called active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) exist at any significant levels in pharmaceutical manufacturing waste waters discharged to local POTWs in the United States.  These industry spokespersons argue that the monetary value of finished pharmaceutical products is so great, and the efficiency of drug manufacturing processes is so high, that APIs are essentially completely recovered from process streams before any waste water stream is discharged. Kessler [6] debunks this claim. She cites and summarizes a study conducted by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) between 2004 and 2009. In this study, researchers collected water samples from the receiving stream and effluent of three POTWs located in the state of New York.  Two of the three POTWs received at least 20% of their receiving waters from large pharmaceutical manufacturers.  Median levels of several APIs, including oxycodone, methadone, diazepam (Valium), and four other lesser known barbiturates and amphetamine compounds, of between 2 and 400 parts per million were present in the discharges from the two POTWs that received significant influent from the manufacturing plants.  In contrast, levels of these same APIs in the discharge from the POTW that did not process effluent from pharmaceutical plants never exceeded 1 part per million and were typically considerably lower. Furthermore, very high maximum concentrations of 1,700 parts per million of oxycodone and 3,800 parts per million of metaxalone were found in the effluent associated with the two POTWs that served the pharmaceutical manufacturing plants.   According to Kessler, at 1,700 parts per million, a person would only need to drink 1.4 liters of this effluent to receive dosages of oxycodone that would roughly equal those received when the drug is consumed as prescribed by a physician.  Some researchers have subsequently noted that it would be unlikely that a person would drink effluent directly from a POTW, and that such waters are subsequently diluted, filtered, and disinfected by municipal drinking water plants before humans consume them, thereby further diluting the impacts of these APIs on human health.  However, the effects on human health of many drugs at very low levels on a long term basis are not well understood. So the study results reported by Kessler should still be of concern.  Furthermore, fish that live in and wildlife that drink from surface waters that are near the POTW discharges would receive much higher dosages of these APIs, which could negatively impact wildlife ecology.  Many human drugs, including hormones (such as those found in birth control pills) and steroids have been shown to produce endocrine disruption in many species of wildlife.  The most significant aspect of the USGS study is that it was the first study that proved that elevated API levels in surface waters can be attributed directly to pharmaceutical plant discharges.  It has spurred additional research, which is ongoing.              


          Another pathway by which APIs enter our surface and drinking waters is via consumers. When a person is prescribed a drug, some of that drug is metabolized and some is excreted in sweat, urine, or feces. Excreted drugs eventually all end up in the sewage treatment system via waste water from toilets and bathing. A second route by which consumers allow drugs to enter the environment is when they dispose of drugs.   When a consumer disposes of expired or unused drugs by flushing them down the toilet or washing them down the sink drain, such drugs also enter the sewage treatment system.  And like the case of APIs entering POTWs directly from pharmaceutical plant discharges, the receiving POTW cannot fully treat or remove them.  Solving this problem is far more difficult than solving the problem caused by direct pharmaceutical plant discharges because it involves treating thousands of different chemical compounds originating from millions of different sources.  It would be relatively easy from a purely technical standpoint for pharmaceutical manufacturers to develop additional treatment processes to ensure removal of APIs from their effluent.  Granted, such manufacturers would likely balk at the added cost and would heavily lobby the government to not enact the required legislation. But, assuming these political barriers could be overcome, it is an easy technical problem to solve, largely because it involves treating well-defined point sources. In the case of APIs introduced by consumers, both the large array of possible drug types and the need to alter human behavior present immense challenges.


          Since the completion of the ground-breaking USGS study cited by Kessler [6], there has been an explosion of research on the subject of APIs in the environment—both those originating directly from pharmaceutical plant discharges and those caused by improper disposal of drugs by consumers.  An excellent source that summarizes much of this on-going research is found at the USGS webpage dealing with the subject of emerging contaminants in the environment [7].


Addressing APIs in the Environment:

          As noted earlier, APIs enter the environment both as point source discharges from pharmaceutical plants and by the actions of consumers who excrete drugs or who dispose of unwanted drugs inappropriately.


          Addressing point source discharges by pharmaceutical manufacturers is not a technical problem (because needed treatment technologies are well-understood), but it poses a formidable political challenge.  Revisions to 40 CFR Part 439, the government regulations governing waste water discharges from pharmaceutical plants, would be required in order to mandate pretreatment of APIs.  Our current political climate features a dysfunctional Congress coupled with a pharmaceutical industry that heavily lobbies the government for favorable legislation.  Between 1998 and 2012, the pharmaceutical industry spent a whopping $2.6 billion dollars [8] on lobbying activities.  Given these conditions, the likelihood of any immediate regulatory change is low.  Ironically, hope for changes in how pharmaceutical companies operate with regard to APIs in the environment may rest with the industry itself.  Various industry publications have begun to feature articles about this problem and some discussions have begun about the costs associated with allowing APIs to enter the environment via waste water discharges.   Costs include both lost revenues by allowing drugs to be discharged (as opposed to being recovered and sold) and potential liability costs associated with adverse health events being causally linked to APIs.  If there is one thing that Big Pharma is responsive to it is profit, so perhaps tying self-regulation to profitability will ultimately result in voluntary reductions of API discharges.   


          How to address APIs that enter the environment by way of inappropriate disposal by consumers or due to excreted drugs is challenging from both a technical and behavioral perspective.  Technical complexity is the result of trying to quantify the impacts of literally thousands of different types of drugs—each with its own potential side effects and each requiring different types of disposal and destruction strategies. Some progress is being made on the local and state government levels to create drug “take back” programs, loosely modeled on various “clean sweep” programs that many municipalities instituted in the 1970s and 1980s to keep consumers from dumping harmful substances like pesticides and waste oil down the drain. Drug take back programs attempt to incentivize consumers to dispose of drugs appropriately by providing convenient means to drop off unused or expired drugs rather than to dump them down the drain.  As with any strategy that requires people to modify their behavior, the keys to success are sustained public education as to the dangers of improper drug disposal and patience, since such behavioral modifications require time to become established.   Addressing APIs that enter the environment through excretion of drugs is perhaps the most difficult issue of all because people can’t prevent drug excretions by behavioral modification short of not taking needed drugs.  As environmental research into the impacts of APIs continues, it is likely that certain drugs will be identified as more problematic than others (e.g. hormones and other endocrine disrupters).  It may then be possible to require upgrades to unit treatment processes at POTWs to incorporate treatment technologies that target especially problematic classes of drugs. Flyborg, [9] piloted changes to a POTW in Sweden that involved adding nanofiltration and ozonation to existing treatment processes in order to remove 95 different drugs.  All but three were successfully removed down to desired levels.  The authors indicated that the remaining three drugs could have been removed were the POTW to use a tighter nanofilter.  However, using a tighter nanofilter was not determined to be cost effective.  This study illustrates the trade-offs we must make between removing unwanted contaminants and keeping POTW operations cost effective.  Such tradeoffs must occur in the context of a larger societal conversation. 


          Daughton and Ruhoy [10] provided what is probably the most far-reaching discussion of how to deal with APIs that enter the environment through excretion and improper disposal by consumers.  Their focus is on ways that the healthcare system can address the problem by preventing inappropriate prescribing.   They coin the phrase “PharmEcovigilance”, which is an extension of the well-understood (within the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries) practice of pharmacovigilance.  Pharmacovigilance involves the collection, detection, assessment, monitoring, and prevention of adverse drug reactions through a system of patient and physician reporting and ongoing medical research on appropriate uses and dosages of drugs.  Daughton and Ruhoy propose to extend this to drugs that enter the environment post-consumer. Their proposed system of PharmEcovigilance would include a number of far-reaching and controversial strategies including: 

  • Physicians should encourage patients to take all drugs prescribed so as to reduce the need to dispose of unwanted drugs 
  • Physicians must practice so-called “rational” prescribing, in which they limit prescribing drugs for off-label uses without good reason and limit the prescription of antibiotics (which when they enter the environment promote antibiotic resistant strains of “superbugs”) except for confirmed cases of bacterial infections (since antibiotics are ineffective against viruses.)
  • Physicians should prescribe trial prescriptions in cases where a patient has not received a particular medication before.  This would reduce instances of the patient disposing of a full prescription of a drug that turned out to be ineffective in treating that patient.
  • Physicians should consider prescribing placebos to some patients whose conditions might resolve on their own, but who demand that the physician prescribe them a medication.
  • The healthcare system should increase its vigilance of patients who might engage in “doctor shopping” as a means to get unneeded prescriptions of drugs.  
  • Physicians must ensure that patients understand the hidden dangers of over-consuming drugs and should work with patients to reduce the numbers of different medications that patients are prescribed unless there is a clearly demonstrated medical benefit for multiple drugs.
  • Educate consumers about the appropriate means of disposing of unused or unwanted drugs.
  • And, perhaps, most radical of all, in light of Western medicine’s reliance on drugs—prescribe exercise, good nutrition, and sufficient rest instead of drugs, whenever possible.


          It seems appropriate to end this essay with the PharmEcovigilance proposals of Daughton and Ruhoy foremost in mind because they represent the coming full-circle of attitudes in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. In the days when the Apothecary practiced his profession, effective listening and communications with patients in order to customize their treatment was deemed as important as the drug that was ultimately prescribed.  Such a personalized approach should be returned to today, not only to help prevent the negative environmental impacts of APIs, but to reduce overall healthcare costs, and to better serve patients.    



References and Further Reading:

  1. “National Health Expenditures, 1960 through 2012”, the United States Center for Medicare and Medicaid Statistics, Retrieved on December 10, 2014, from
  2. Goldschmidt, N., “First Steps for Sustainable Bio/Pharma HVAC”, Engineered Systems, August, 2009, p. 26-34.
  3. Nikolova, D., Ivanov, B., and Dobrudzhaliev, D. “Energy Integration in Antibiotic Production using Heat Storage Tanks”, Trakia Journal of Sciences, Vol. 9, No 4, 2011, pp 30-38.
  4. “Filling Gaps during Carbon Footprint Studies to Design Green Pharmaceuticals”, conference presentation sponsored by Glaxo Smith-Kline, Inc., at the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute Pharmaceutical Roundtable, November, 2013.
  5. Ramesh, D., “Cost Cutting Becomes the Pharma Industry’s Mantra:  Green Technology Gains Importance,” Chemical Week, September 28/October 5, 2009, p. 24-28.
  6. Kessler, R., “Pharmaceutical Factories as a Source of Drugs in Water,” Environmental Health Perspectives ,Vol.118, No. 9, September, 2010, p. A383.
  7. “Emerging Contaminants in the Environment”, United States Geological Survey webpage, retrieved on December 17, 2014, from
  8. Potter, W., “Big Pharma's Stranglehold on Washington,” The Center for Public Integrity, February 11, 2013, retrieved on December 16, 2014, from
  9. Flyborg, L., Björlenius, B., and Persson, K.M. “Can Treated Municipal Wastewater be Reused after Ozonation and Nanofiltration? Results from a Pilot Study of Pharmaceutical Removal in Henriksdal WWTP Sweden”, Water Science and Technology, 61.5, 2010, p.1113-1120.
  10. Daughton, C.G., and Ruhoy, I.S., “The Afterlife of Drugs and the Role of PharmEcovigilance”, Drug Safety, Vol. 31(12), 2008, p. 1069-1082.


In Spring 2015, look for the twelfth and final installment of this essay series.  In “Its Just Good Business,” we will explore the ultimate driver for successfully addressing the environmental concerns discussed throughout the series—the economics of sustainability.   We will look at innovative economic models that can be used to help justify sustainable practices.   The painting which will inspire this discussion is The Money Lenders, by Dutch painter Quinten Massys (1465/66-1530)           

The Man at Work Collection--Studies in Sustainability

Installment Ten:  “Our Marine Fisheries— Strategies for Stopping Their Decline and Promoting Recovery”

By Deborah L Jackman, PhD, PE, LEED AP™

Image Fisherman Hauling in their Nets at Sea.jpg

Fishermen Hauling in their Nets at Sea, ca 1890,

  by Georges-Jean-Marie Haquette, oil on canvas


          The inspiration for this essay came from a trip to the grocery store.   I am a compulsive food label reader--always scanning labels for ingredients and the origins of items I purchase.  I try to buy locally (or at least regionally) whenever possible, and I also try to purchase items that are produced as sustainably as possible. If given the choice between several similar products with different places of origin, I will generally choose the product from the region that has in place the best environmental safeguards.  I was shopping for frozen fish for dinner one evening and noticed that all of the fish available in the freezer section of that particular supermarket were labelled a “Product of China”.  Even the shrimp (which are abundant in our own U.S. Gulf Coast region) were unavailable except as a “Product of Thailand”.   I have nothing inherently against either China or Thailand, but truth be told, neither nation has a particularly good environmental track record.  This incident really got me thinking about how the seafood we consume is harvested and how we can help ensure this is done responsibly and sustainably.

          The fishermen in our subject painting, Fishermen Hauling in their Nets at Sea, didn’t have to worry about the impact their fishing operations were having on the ecosystems of the oceans.  Art historians have noted that the fishermen depicted in the painting are using an old-style trawl net to capture fish such as sardines, mackerel, and blue whiting off the coast of France. In the 19th century, the world’s human population was much smaller, thereby placing much less pressure on fish populations as food sources. Furthermore, many of the pollutants and factory ship fishing methods which jeopardize both fish populations and the larger ocean ecosystem today were not a factor back then.  The type of trawl net being used by the men in the painting is dwarfed by modern day trawl nets which are much larger, extend much further out from the boat and which can haul in tons of fish at a time because they are operated by mechanized winches rather than hauled in using human strength alone.

          With the earth’s human population currently estimated at more than 7 billion people, sources of protein in the human diet are increasingly at a premium. Production of land-based protein sources such as livestock and terrestrial plant-based sources such as seeds, nuts, and legumes are limited by their own set of environmental and economic constraints.  Throughout human history, the oceans have appeared to be an inexhaustible resource for mankind. However, in the last century humans have exploited the oceans at increasing rates, and we have reached a point that would have been unimaginable to our forebears—a point where we are exploiting ocean resources at a rate that exceeds the oceans’ ability to regenerate themselves.  In short, our utilization of ocean resources, and specifically its fisheries, has become unsustainable.  This essay will examine the factors which contribute to the decline of our oceans’ fisheries and will suggest ways we might reverse this decline.      

      Causes of the Current Decline in Fishstocks:

          There is no single reason for the current decline of ocean ecosystems and our fisheries.  The oceans are an extremely complex ecosystem and not all the dynamics governing them are fully understood, even today. However, most experts agree that three main forces are likely to blame for the fisheries’ decline:

  • Overfishing
  • Global warming/global climate change
  • General degradation of ocean ecosystems due to pollution


          Overfishing occurs when fish are harvested in numbers too great to allow breeding stocks to replenish themselves.  In 2006, the Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) taskforce, which was commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), published a comprehensive report on the status of the world’s aquatic ecosystems, entitled “Challenges to International Waters:  Regional Assessments in a Global Perspective” [1]. One of the major conclusions from the report was that 52% of the world’s fish stocks were being fished at capacity (meaning any additional pressures on them would cause them to become over exploited and unsustainable), 16% were over exploited, and 7% were depleted.  Hence, only 25% of the world’s fish stocks were deemed to be at healthy levels. Since the report was released in 2006 (nearly a decade ago) pressures on fisheries have grown even greater.  It is likely that the current statistics are worse than those published in the 2006 GIWA report. 

          It is generally agreed that the main causes of overfishing include 1) over-exploitation, 2) excessive by-catch and discards; and 3) destructive fishing practices.
          Over-exploitation is caused by over harvesting of commercial species by industrial fishing fleets.  Industrial fishing ships use large mechanized trawl nets and can harvest tons of fish each day.  Many also house on-board fish processing and freezer facilities so that fish harvests can be immediately preserved for market.  Such on-board processing facilities tend to encourage over-harvesting because fishing industry personnel know that everything they catch will be marketable and that there will be no waste due to product spoilage.

          Many countries’ commercial fishing fleets knowingly violate agreed upon bag limits, harvesting far more fish than what has been determined to be sustainable. Recently, the scientific journal Nature [2] reported that commercial Chinese fishing fleets operating in waters off the coast of West Africa had taken 2.9 million tons of fish from those waters during 2011.  This severely impacted the remaining fish stocks available to local West African peoples, who rely on fishing to provide themselves with a subsistence diet. Worldwide, Chinese commercial fishing operations harvested 4.6 million tons of fish in 2011, which was 12 times what they reported to the United Nations.   The discrepancy was uncovered by researchers who compared what the Chinese reported having caught against commercial sales figures of fish sold under a “Product of China” label of origin. (Any fish which were the product of Chinese aquaculture as opposed to wild-caught were discounted from the calculations. So, the reported numbers reflect only wild-caught fish.)   While the Chinese are not the only commercial fleet to violate bag limits, theirs has been the subject of some of the most egregious violations in recent years.

          Excessive by-catch and discards also contribute to commercial overfishing and to damage of the ocean ecosystem.  When certain types of nets and fishing practices are employed, many species of non-commercial fish, reptiles such as sea turtles, and marine mammals can be incidentally captured along with the targeted species.  These species are either left to die in the nets, or if returned to the ocean, often die anyway due to trauma.  While not commercially desirable, many of the by-catch fish are part of the food chain and provide food to commercial species of fish.  If stocks of non-commercial fish are depleted through by-catch, populations of commercially desirable fish are also negatively impacted.  

          Destructive fishing practices include bottom trawling (which when employed in coastal areas can destroy delicate coral reefs), blast fishing (which uses explosives like dynamite to set off underwater explosions that kill or stun fish and brings them to the surface for collection by fishermen), and poisoning (the use of chemicals like cyanide and chlorine bleach) to kill fish, which then float to the surface and are subsequently collected.  Blast fishing and poisoning not only contribute to reef destruction (from which it is estimated a coral reef can require up to a century to recover) but can also jeopardize human health.  There are reported instances of people becoming sickened by consuming fish harvested by poisoning methods.  Blast fishing and poisoning are not generally used by large commercial fishers, but by subsistence fishers who live near the coast and rely on fishing for their livelihoods.  Nonetheless, the ecological damage done by these practices is severe because it impacts delicate coastal areas that are already being threatened by agricultural chemical run-off, untreated human sewage, oil spills, and soil erosion from the land.  Blast fishing and poisoning are currently the most prevalent in Southeast Asia and off the coast of East Africa, near Somalia [1].   

          Scientists also believe that certain important commercial fish populations and marine ecosystems are in decline due to global climate change.  This decline will likely continue to increase as atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise.  Rising CO2 levels not only cause an increase in ocean temperatures, but a decrease in salinity (as ice caps containing fresh water melt and dilute salt concentrations) and an increase in acidity (since higher dissolved CO2 levels in the water lower pH).  Two examples of how this impact may play-out are discussed below. However, the projected damage to global fisheries is not limited to these examples but threatens to be much more wide-spread and pervasive.

          One of the best examples of damage to a marine ecosystem resulting from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is that of the decline and death of coral reefs in many places on earth [3].   While localized pollution has contributed to their decline, the more generalized culprits are bacterial infections and increased ocean acidity.  An increase in water acidity slows the formation of the calcium carbonate skeleton of the coral and in extreme cases can even cause it to soften or dissolve. The coral is therefore less able to recover from the normal wear-and-tear it experiences due to ocean currents, tide forces, and storms. And, as increased CO2 levels cause ocean temperatures to rise, the warmer waters promote more rapid bacterial growth, and bacterial infections in coral become more frequent and severe.  Since many species of fish and shellfish of commercial interest depend on the health of coral reefs, the decline of these reefs (which is an environmental tragedy in its own right) also can impact the health of that fishery.

          An example of an important commercial fish species that will likely be impacted as global climate change progresses is that of Atlantic Cod [4],[5].  Cod has been an important commercial fish for millennia.  The maritime cultures of the North Atlantic region including those in Norway, Newfoundland, and New England were historically based on cod.  And cod was traditionally abundant.  However, due to severe over fishing in the last half century, cod populations plummeted.  After stringent bag limits and outright bans in some fisheries were instituted starting in the 1990s, the cod population has slowly begun to recover.  However, now it faces an uncertain future not because of overfishing, but because of global climate change.   Cod is a cold water fish and it needs cold water in which to breed. Cod is also a carnivore which feeds on other fish.  As ocean temperatures in the traditional cod fisheries of the North Atlantic begin to rise, cod will migrate further north, into the colder waters of the arctic.  Preliminary attempts at computer modelling designed to project cod populations in the presence of global climate change suggest that in the short term this migration will increase cod stocks in far northern waters.  But, as populations in the north grow, stocks of other species of arctic fish will become depleted by the voracious cod.  In the extreme, the cod become cannibalistic, feeding off of their own young if sufficient feedstock of other species are not present.  Then populations will plummet.  In the process, species of fish indigenous to the arctic will be driven to extinction.  Since ocean salinity levels will drop at the same time water temperatures rise, the viability of cod eggs and young hatchlings is also uncertain.  They may not be able to survive outside of a relatively narrow range of salinity.  So, at this point, the ultimate fate of the cod is unknown.  Under the best of circumstances, cod populations will reach some new steady state level, but at much higher latitudes than before.  They will become scarce in their traditional fisheries of the North Atlantic.

          In addition to overfishing and climate change, the general decline of ocean ecosystems due to pollution also negatively impacts fish populations.   Pollution takes many forms:  dumping of untreated sewage into oceans, chemical and agricultural run-off from land-based activities, unauthorized dumping of garbage at sea, oil spills, etc.  A comprehensive discussion of ocean pollution is beyond the scope of this article. However, two general points can be made: 1) increased ocean pollution follows from increased human population and human activity, and 2) ocean pollution can be controlled if human beings enact and follow basic environmental protocols and pollution prevention strategies.   


Why Fish Farming is Not the Definitive Solution:

          A substantial amount of the fish we consume today is no longer wild-caught, but produced via aquaculture, (i.e. on so-called “fish farms”).  And, levels of aquacultural production are projected to grow at a rapid pace into the future.  At first blush, this approach may seem to be a solution to overfishing, but, in fact, fish farming carries its own set of negative environmental impacts.

          Emerson [6] provides an excellent overview of the negative environmental and social impacts of aquaculture.   These include:

  • Pollution of inland and coastal waters—Most water pollution from aquaculture is the result of fish feed.  Direct pollution results from overfeeding fish.  Uneaten food adds to the biological oxygen demand (BOD) in the water and can result in eutrophication of those waters.  Oxygen is needed to breakdown the uneaten feed into the fundamental byproducts of organic decay—carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water.  When large amounts of organic matter, such as fish food, enter the ecosystem, the oxygen needed to facilitate organic breakdown comes from the water, thereby reducing dissolved oxygen levels in the water. This can result in fish kills and the promotion of excessive algae growth.  Pollution is also caused when the fish eat the food and then produce waste products that are introduced into the water system.  Via this mechanism, high levels of nitrogen based compounds and bacteria can be introduced.  Overfeeding the fish exacerbates this because the fish will consume more food than can be digested, with undigested and partially digested food passing through them into the ecosystem. Practices that can mitigate the negative environmental impacts of fish feeding include 1) not overfeeding fish; 2) careful site selection for coastal fish farms, choosing areas that have strong currents and good water circulation, in order to more quickly flush out byproducts; 3) biological and/or physical pretreatment of effluent waters before discharge to the larger body of water, to remove excess pollutants (where practical); and 4) polyculture—a practice where several species of fish are raised together, consisting of at least one species of “bottom feeder”, which can consume excess fish food that falls to the bottom.  Common species that form polyculture systems are scaly finned fish in combination with oysters or mussels.


  • Using natural fish stocks to feed farmed fish— Farmed fish, like all animals, must eat in order to survive and grow.   For carnivorous fish, such as farm-raised salmon, diets must consist of large amounts of animal-based feed.  One commonly used source of such feed is to catch wild fish species that have little or no market value themselves—so-called “garbage fish”. These fish are fed to the farmed fish. The problem with this method is that many of the “garbage fish” may not be palatable to humans, but they form an important link in the natural food chain.  Depletion of these non-marketable species can negatively impact wild populations of commercially important species, causing their decline. Potential solutions to this problem include raising and creatively marketing more herbivorous species of fish, as opposed to carnivorous ones, and to begin to feed carnivorous fish feed manufactured from land-based meat and dairy by-products. 


  • Introduction of alien or modified species to wild ecosystems which can threaten biodiversity— Some farmed fish species have been improved through selective breeding such that they grow larger more quickly and also exhibit other traits not common in their wild relatives.  When such individuals are released (intentionally or by accident) into the wild ecosystem, their genetic material can dominate that of the wild variety, since they may grow and reproduce at an accelerated pace. Genetic material present in the wild individuals that could be critical in future species survival is potentially lost. This scenario becomes even more problematic when genetically engineered fish (who contain genes from other species) are farmed.  Then it is not just preferential selection of certain genes from within the natural genome of the species that occurs, but potentially the introduction of totally foreign genetic material into the natural fish population, should such GMO organisms escape into the wild.  (Such a scenario is not unlikely in the future given that as of March, 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration was in the final stage of approving for sale to consumers the AquAdvantage® salmon.  This genetically modified Atlantic salmon contains genes from both the unrelated Chinook salmon and an eel, allowing it to grow twice as fast as its natural, non-GMO relative [7].) Another related scenario occurs when a species not native to a region (and which therefore cannot interbreed with wild relatives) is farmed.  When such individuals escape into the wild, they do not interbreed with the wild fish, but rather can displace the wild species.  An example of this occurred in the late 1990s in the Pacific Northwest, where farm-raised Atlantic Salmon escaped and negatively impacted the native Pacific Salmon population.


  • Coastal habitat destruction— When coastal areas are cleared of their natural vegetation in order allow development of aquaculture, loss of natural species (both aquatic and land-based) and loss of erosion control capability can result.   A prime example is the large scale loss of tropical mangrove forests in Southeast Asia, as these areas are converted into shrimp aquaculture production.  Shrimp need the brackish water in ecosystems like those found in coastal mangrove forests to grow and reproduce. Conversion of these areas into aquaculture production has been expeditious for the shrimp production industries of such nations a Thailand, China, and Indonesia.  However, it jeopardizes many native species found only in the mangrove ecosystem and may also result in massive erosion of coastal lands when the next large storm, typhoon, or tidal wave hits these areas.  Addressing this concern means limiting large scale aquaculture operations to less sensitive coastal areas and establishing coastal preserves to ensure that these delicate ecosystems survive.


  • Displacement of subsistence fisherman by large aquaculture corporations—Hundreds of millions of people world-wide rely on subsistence fishing to provide protein to their diets and to provide some money for basic purchases, through the sale of fish at local fish markets.  Most of these subsistence fishing activities use traditional methods which have little impact on the larger environment.  When large aquaculture interests move in to coastal areas, they displace the local subsistence fishermen, robbing them of their livelihoods.  Not only does this promote economic hardship, but from an environmental standpoint it also encourages these impoverished people to engage in highly damaging fishing practices such as the blast fishing discussed above, in a desperate attempt to make a living. 


          As with most industries, aquaculture is not inherently bad when it is conducted in a controlled and responsible manner.  In fact, the argument can be made that it is an industry that will be crucial to the future of humanity and to the conservation of natural fisheries, and that its development is to be encouraged. However, such development and growth must be done responsibly.  Just as land-based industries have had to comply with a number of environmental regulations in recent decades, so must the aquaculture industry, in order for it to be sustainable.  One factor that has tended to exacerbate its negative environmental impacts over the last two decades is that aquaculture is growing most rapidly in nations with few or no environmental regulations.  As the economies of these nations mature-- and due to pressures applied to them by international organizations like the UN and by end consumers seeking sustainably produced products—it is increasingly likely that they will begin to impose reasonable environmental restrictions on their aquaculture industries.
          A comprehensive discussion of aquaculture is beyond the scope of this essay.  But, the interested reader is encouraged to read the report by Hall,, [8], which provides an extensive discussion of the global status of aquaculture, along with detailed information on what is needed to ensure its long-term sustainability.


Actions to Help Ensure Sustainable Fisheries for Future Generations:

              The ocean’s ecosystems are extremely complex and one must be cautious when drawing conclusions regarding the reasons for the decline in our marine fisheries or when proposing solutions to the problem. However, it is generally agreed that the following initiatives will help improve the quantity and diversity of fish living in the Earth’s oceans over the long term: 

1.  Strict bag limits and moratoria on fishing of certain species to allow recovery time— This is not a new idea, since moratoria and bag limits have been used to manage commercial fish populations such as cod in the past with some success. But it is critical that it continue to be applied in the future. It is difficult to enforce moratoria and limits due to the vastness of the sea.  While the United Nations and some national governments attempt oversight, they are unable by themselves to ensure full compliance. Compliance depends to a large extent on education and on the “honor system.”  While many commercial fishing interests follow established rules, other commercial fishing interests balk at them, because of short-sighted profit motives. But, these commercial interests must be educated as to the impact of continued unrestrained overfishing.  If it continues, soon the commercial fishing industry will cease to exist altogether because the fish they seek will be extinct. Framed in this way and understanding that it is in their own best interests to ensure a sustainable population of fish, it may be possible to persuade the vast majority of commercial fishing interests to abide by limits. 

2.  Establish economic sanctions on companies or nations that routinely ignore agreed upon catch limits—In the perfect world, fishing interests might be persuaded to abide by catch limits purely for their own long-term self interest, i.e., to ensure the continued health of the fisheries upon which their businesses rely. However, since ours in not a perfect world, we can expect that some fishing interests will continue to violate limits despite our best efforts at education. For this reason, national governments and international organizations such as the UN should establish an agreed upon sanction system to economically punish companies and nations who continue to violate limits.  Such sanctions could include limiting the access of these entities to loans and investment capital, or freezing monetary assets held in banks.  Such measures have been used to pressure rogue states, e.g., Iran, for political actions incompatible with international law. They could also be used in cases of extreme environmental malfeasance, as relates to global fisheries.     

3.  Educate consumers—Consumers have the ability to “vote with their pocketbooks” and refuse to buy certain fish products that they don’t believe are of sufficient quality or which are tainted in environmental or political terms.  Many consumers, especially in wealthy first world countries such as the US, have become increasingly conscious of the quality and provenance of their food.  The desire for locally and regionally sourced foods, and for sustainably and humanely produced foods, is growing.  The interest in “fair trade” foods, which promise to give the farmer/producer a significant portion of the revenues from the sale of the food is also strong.  Given a choice, many consumers will select those food alternatives that are the most sustainably and justly produced. Labeling which includes the origin and content of fish, as well as information about conditions under which it was raised/harvested is critical to informed consumer choice.   Consumers must be also be educated about the state of our wild fisheries, about issues related to aquaculture, and about some of the environmental abuses present in the fishing and aquaculture industries.  Faced with strong consumer pressure to improve their operations or lose sales, the seafood industry, as a whole, will adopt better, more environmentally responsible practices.  There are prominent examples which illustrate that consumer pressure does drive improvements in seafood industry practices.  One example is the 1986 US consumer boycott of tuna, which led to changes in tuna fishing methods in the South Pacific to minimize by-catch of dolphins. While not perfect, the dolphin-safe tuna inspection and labeling system that US tuna producers adopted has yielded large reductions in dolphin mortality associated with tuna fishing. Another example is the 2002 boycott of the Chilean Sea Bass (aka, the Patagonian Toothfish) led by prominent chefs and restaurateurs.  This fish came perilously close to extinction due to overfishing in the 1990s when it became a trendy dish in high-end restaurants.  Following the 2002 boycott, its population began to recover, and 2014 reports from marine organizations and environmental groups indicate its population is recovering.     

4.  Discontinue or counter government subsidies that distort fish prices and incentivize poor production practices—In some instances, seafood that is produced in a non-sustainable manner is priced preferentially over that which is produced more responsibly, not because such seafood is cheaper to produce, but solely because of government subsidies.  In these cases, government subsidies must be removed or neutralized in order to promote better fishing practices.  While this will cause fish prices to rise, their rise will simply be a reflection of the true cost of production.  A prime example of this situation is the shrimp market in the United States. Shrimp is the single most popular seafood item in the US and the market for it is huge. Most shrimp sold in the US today is produced in China or Thailand by large aquaculture interests. Yet, the US has an enormous domestic source of naturally produced (wild) shrimp in its Gulf Coast shrimp fishery.  These wild shrimp fisheries are largely within US territorial waters and are subject to relatively strict US fishing regulations.  These regulations help to ensure that good practices are being used and that bag limits are complied with.   Prior to the early 2000s, most shrimp consumed in the US was caught in the Gulf Coast.  However, since 2009, the US market has been flooded with inexpensive shrimp from Southeast Asia.  The governments of seven countries-- China, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam—heavily subsidize their own aquaculture interests with billions of dollars annually.  This allows these countries to sell shrimp into the US market at below production cost. The unsubsidized Gulf Coast shrimping industry, centered in Louisiana, cannot compete and many shrimpers have been driven out of business.   Recently, the Louisiana seafood industry has asked that the US government impose a tariff on imports of shrimp from these countries, in order to neutralize the effect of the subsidies [9].  Regardless of one’s economic views on tariffs and subsidies, from a sustainability perspective, it would be preferable for the Louisiana shrimp industry to supply more shrimp into the US market since much of the shrimp aquaculture done in Asia is largely unregulated and uses questionable practices.  Furthermore, the embodied energy (a concept that readers of this essay series are familiar with) associated with shrimp that must be transported thousands of miles is huge. 

5.  Better stewardship of the oceans to avoid  pollution—It is self-evident that the healthier and cleaner the ocean ecosystems are overall, the healthier its inhabitants (the fish) will be.  The subject of ocean pollution is a huge one. Its causes are many and the solutions complex.  Addressing ocean pollution will require international cooperation, since no one nation can by its own actions and laws fully address the problem.  It is also a subject that is beyond the scope of this essay. Let us simply say that we should do all we can to mitigate and prevent ocean pollution, both to protect fisheries and to help promote the health of the planet overall.   

6.  Control global warming—As with ocean pollution, the subject of global climate change and global warming is beyond the scope of this essay.  Its damaging effects go beyond those affecting fisheries and impact all aspects of life on Earth.  However, we have seen, as discussed above, that there are some specific concerns related to fisheries (i.e. the impact on coral reefs and on cod) being driven by global warming. We can’t reverse all of its impacts, but can mitigate some of its effects if we start now to address it.


          Arresting and reversing the decline in our marine fisheries will not be easy. It will require a broad commitment from all the nations of the world.  Most of the challenges are not technical because from a scientific perspective most agree on what needs to be done—prevent overfishing, stop pollution, engage in responsible aquaculture, etc.  Rather, the challenges are political and social.  We need the political and social will to improve current fishing and aquaculture practices.  Building consensus at the international level on the need to employ the various conservation strategies discussed will be a difficult task.  Yet, there are successes to build upon such as the recent resurgence in cod and Chilean sea bass populations.  And, there really is no alternative but to reach consensus because seven billion human beings need to eat if they are to survive; and the oceans continue, as they have throughout human history, to be a critical source of that food. 

The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach - waiting for a gift from the sea.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

References and Further Reading:

  1. “Challenges to International Waters:  Regional Assessments in a Global Perspective”, report of the Global International Water Assessment group, published by the United Nations Environment Programme in collaboration with GEF, the University of Kalmar and the Municipality of Kalmar, Sweden, and the Governments of Sweden, Finland, and Norway, 2006.
  2. Pala, Christopher, “Detective Work Uncovers Under-reported Overfishing: Excessive Catches by Chinese Vessels Threaten Livelihoods and Ecosystems in West Africa”, Nature, Vol. 496, April 4, 2013.
  3. Lalasz, Bob, “Coral Reefs and Climate Change:  What the New IPCC Report Says,”  Cool Green Science:  The Science Blog of the Nature Conservancy, March 31, 2014.  Retrieved from  on June 24, 2014.
  4. “Cod and Future Climate Change,” International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Report No. 305, September 2010.
  5. “Climate, Fisheries, and Protected Resources”, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), 2014.  Retrieved from   on June 26, 2014. 
  6. Emerson, C., “Aquaculture Impacts on the Environment”, CSA, 1999. Retrieved from  on June 30, 2014.
  7. Sentenac, H., “GMO Salmon May Soon Hit Food Stores, but Will Anyone Buy It?”, March 11, 2014.  Retrieved on July 10, 2014, from
  8. Hall, S.J., A. Delaporte, M. J. Phillips, M. Beveridge and M. O’Keefe. 2011. Blue Frontiers: Managing the Environmental Costs of Aquaculture. The WorldFish Center, Penang, Malaysia.   Retrieved on July 10, 2014, from
  9. “Coalition of Gulf Shrimp Industries Files for Relief from Subsidized Shrimp Imports”. Louisiana Seafood, January 15, 2013. Retrieved on July 11, 2014, from


  •   In Fall 2014, look for Installment Eleven of this series.  Sustainability issues related to the modern pharmaceutical industry will be explored. The inspiration for this essay is The Apothecary, by 20th century Hungarian artist, Vida Gabor.

The Man at Work Collection--Studies in Sustainability

Installment Nine:  “From Lanterns to LEDs -- A Look at the Evolution of Sustainable Lighting”

By Deborah L Jackman, PhD, PE, LEED AP™

glass blowers making lantern mantles.jpg

Glassblowing, 1932,

by Hugo von Bouvard (1879-1959), oil on canvas

A Brief History of Lighting:

          It is easy for us to forget that humans have only had access to artificial lighting for about two hundred years.  Prior to the early 19th century when gas lamps began to be introduced into some major cities in the United States and Europe, people lived a very different life—a life whose rhythms were governed largely by the rising and setting of the sun.  A. Roger Ekirch, a historian on the faculty of Virginia Tech, writes of life before artificial lighting in his best-selling book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past [1]. Ekirch’s research reveals glimpses into a human culture awash in superstition and fear, with many people refusing to leave their homes at night, convinced they would encounter demons, witches, or even Satan himself.   In large cities, like London or Paris, street crimes, committed by roving gangs of thugs, were rampant after dark.  The street crime rate in cities is estimated to have been as much as ten times greater prior to 1800 than today, when adjusted for differences in population.  People’s patterns of recreation and sleep also varied greatly from today, with activities requiring light, such as reading and writing, confined largely to daylight hours, and hence, largely reserved for the upper classes, who could afford leisure time during the day.  While candles and torches have existed for centuries, such devices require constant tending and were the source of fires, which in a time of limited fire-fighting ability, were feared by people perhaps even more than the alleged demons lurking in the dark.  Furthermore, candles tended to be expensive and the working classes usually used tapers instead. (Tapers consisted of a reed dipped in animal fat which would burn for only short periods of time and which smoked excessively.)  Even those in the upper classes who could afford high-quality bee’s wax candles would have had to burn as many as 100 candles simultaneously to achieve the same illumination as can be achieved today with a single 60 Watt incandescent light bulb.  

          Human society began to change significantly starting in the mid 18th century as  oil lanterns came into common use. Oil lanterns allowed for a more controlled burn, better fire safety, and more predictable, longer lasting light levels.  Then, starting in the early 19th century, gas lamps began to be used in large cities.  Cities installed the infrastructure to supply gas derived from coal and oil into people’s homes via a system of pipelines.  In rural areas, oil lanterns were gradually replaced by kerosene lanterns.  The subsequent increased demand for kerosene spurred the growth of the oil and gas industry, with the most prized early product of oil refining being kerosene, rather than gasoline.  It was only later on, after the Model T was introduced in the early 20th century, that gasoline overtook kerosene as the most sought after product of petroleum refining.   Our subject painting, Glassblowing, depicts artisans blowing glass mantles for use in the manufacture of kerosene lanterns.  Kerosene lanterns persisted as a major source of artificial light well into the early 20th century in rural America, prior to the rural electrification programs carried on as part of the New Deal.

          The biggest leap in the development of artificial lighting occurred with the development of the incandescent light bulb.  Light is produced in the incandescent light bulb by passing electrical current through a tungsten filament in a vacuum. When heated by an electric current, the tungsten glows, producing light. The absence of oxygen in the evacuated space keeps the filament from oxidizing. While Thomas Edison is traditionally credited with the invention of the incandescent light bulb, it existed in various forms well before Edison.  Much of the early research on incandescent bulbs centered on finding a suitable material for the filament—a material that would glow or “incandesce”, which was able to be manipulated easily during the manufacturing process, and which was cheap and durable.  Edison did propose a number of improvements to the device, starting in the early 1880s.  However, his major breakthrough came in 1905, when he patented an improved ductile tungsten filament, very similar to what we use today. Whatever his role in the actual invention of the light bulb, Edison was indisputably the major force in its commercialization.   Incandescent light bulbs represented a huge improvement over earlier forms of illumination because they operated without an actual flame.  This reduced the fire hazard associated with the use of artificial lighting immensely--a feature of increasing importance as America became more urbanized, with higher population densities crowded into fire-prone urban housing units. 

            Perhaps the most amazing feature of the incandescent light bulb is its longevity.  In a world where technologies are launched, mature, and become obsolete over the period of a few years, or at most a few decades, incandescent bulbs have remained a viable commercial product for nearly 110 years.  They are cheap to make and easy to use. However, from a technical standpoint, they are very inefficient producers of light.  Of the electrical power consumed to operate an incandescent light bulb, only about 5% of it is converted to light.  The remaining 95% is converted to heat energy.  That means that the traditional incandescent light bulb is actually a much better heater than it is a light! Thus, in this era of increased awareness of the importance of energy efficiency, the venerable incandescent bulb is finally being phased out, in favor of alternatives which include Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) and Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs).

          Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) were first introduced commercially in the mid 1990s. They operate on the same principle as the more traditional tube style fluorescent lamps, except the tube is bent to fit into a space approximately the same size as a standard incandescent bulb.  Various chemical phosphors are excited by the electric ballast at the base of each bulb, and when excited, they luminesce, creating light.  CFLs became common place in the first decade of the 21st century, when various rebates and other purchasing incentives, coupled with education programs on how the use of CFLs would save consumers money on utility bills, provided many consumers with an incentive to purchase them as replacements for incandescent bulbs. They are much longer lasting and energy efficient than incandescent bulbs, but suffer from other shortcomings, which are discussed in greater detail below.

The newest type of artificial light source is the Light-Emitting Diode (LED).  LEDs are solid state semiconductor devices that emit a photon of a single wavelength (color) of light when an electric current passes through them.  Single LEDs have been in use since the 1970s as panel indicator lights on electronic devices.  However, it has only been in the last decade that LED based devices have been developed that can be used as replacements for incandescent light bulbs in task lighting applications. LED light bulbs are made up of many individual LED units in a variety of colors which combine to provide sufficient light intensity and color spectrum (collectively a white light.)  They are still quite expensive relative to both incandescent bulbs and CFLs, but show great promise to ultimately fully replace incandescent bulbs over the next years because of their good quality of light, their long life, and their energy efficiency.

Environmental Impacts of Artificial Lighting:                              

Before we look specifically at new developments in artificial lighting and at alternatives to the incandescent light bulb, we need to investigate some of the environmental impacts of artificial lighting.   This investigation informs the search for the best and most sustainable modern lighting systems.

1.    Energy efficiency--Nearly all Americans are aware of the government mandated transition that is currently underway to phase out incandescent light bulbs.  And most are also aware of the primary reason behind the phase-out--the need to become more energy efficient.  Indeed, energy efficiency is the major driver in many industries today, as society strives to become more sustainable by reducing the production of green house gases through greater energy conservation. Lighting consumes 22 to 25% of all electricity used in the United States and therefore represents a major opportunity for energy savings. As noted above, only 5% of the energy consumed by an incandescent light bulb is converted to light.  This is in contrast to compact fluorescent bulbs, which use only 25 to 35% as much electricity as incandescent bulbs to produce the same illumination and last 10 times longer [2].  Even more impressive are light emitting diodes (LEDs), which use 20% as much electricity as incandescent bulbs for the same illumination levels and last 25 times longer [3]. Clearly, on the basis of energy efficiency alone, the LED-based light fixture represents the way of the future.      

2.    Toxicity and Resource Depletion—Energy efficiency is only one component of how sustainable a product is.  As we have seen in other essays in this series, the best way to assess the overall sustainability of a product is via a life cycle assessment of that product.  Life cycle assessment takes into account not only how much energy is consumed during the use of the product, but also how much energy is consumed during the manufacture of the product (i.e. embodied energy), and how much hazardous waste or toxic chemicals are generated during the life cycle of the product.  When one looks at incandescent, fluorescent, and LED lamps in the life cycle assessment context, the picture is more nuanced than when considering energy efficiency alone.  According to researchers Lim, Kang, Ogunseitan and Schoenung [4] both CFLs and LEDs are categorized as hazardous waste under current federal regulations when disposed of at end of life due to excessive levels of lead leachability and their high content of copper, mercury, and zinc.  Incandescent bulbs, in contrast, are not so classified.  Lim, et al., also looked at the level of resource depletion that occurs during the production of the three light sources.  They concluded that CFLs and LEDs have higher resource depletion and toxicity potential than the incandescent bulb due primarily to their high aluminum, copper, gold, lead, silver, and zinc content. When compared on an equivalent quantity basis (taking into account and correcting for their different lifetimes), CFLs were found to have 3 to 26 times higher potential impact than incandescents, and LEDs 2 to 3 times higher impacts than incandescents.  This group of researchers only looked at resource depletion and hazardous waste impact of the three lighting sources.  They did not do a complete life cycle assessment which would factor in the reduced energy impacts of LEDs and CFLs.

The most interesting result of my research into these impacts is that a data base search did not reveal any journal articles in which a comprehensive life cycle assessment comparing the three light sources and including both energy use (operational and embodied) and toxics generation potential was conducted. Clearly, this is an area ripe for additional research. Were the operational energy consumption of these three light sources factored into a comprehensive life cycle assessment, one can surmise that LEDs would be shown to be at least as or more sustainable than incandescents.  Even though they have a 2 to 3 times higher resource depletion and hazardous waste generation potential than incandescents, the avoided pollution (both in terms of green house gases and toxics emitted by power plants) of the lower energy consumption of LEDs would likely off-set their environmental downside.  The case for CFLs is less clear because while more energy efficient than incandescents, their up to 26 times higher potential hazardous waste and resource depletion impact would require a great deal of avoided pollution from their energy use to off-set these impacts.  When compared directly to LEDs, CFLs are clearly the inferior choice, having less energy efficiency and higher negative environmental impacts.  In any case, the sustainability profile for both LEDs and CFLs can be significantly improved if an effective waste management system for collecting used bulbs is developed.  This will require a significant amount of consumer education and a change in the behavior of the general public, who in many cases still dispose of spent CFLs in their general trash, despite being instructed not to.  Perhaps some sort of cash deposit system, like that that used to be in effect for beverage containers in the 1960s and 1970s, could incentivize consumers to properly recycle LEDs and CFLs.  

          3.    Light Pollution—Another negative impact of our use of artificial lights is that of light pollution.  Light pollution is the alteration of light levels in the outdoor environment (from those present naturally) due to man-made sources of light [5]. The increase of light levels at night is more than just a nuisance that produces unattractive glare or interferes with activities that require a dark sky, such as star gazing.  Inappropriate levels of light during the night have been shown to be damaging to a number of nocturnal species of animals who depend upon darkness as part of their normal life cycle.  It is also a danger to humans, whose circadian rhythms can be disrupted, leading to sleep disorders and general health problems. So serious has this problem become that scientists and concerned citizens have founded the International Dark-Sky Association, an  organization whose purpose is to educate people about and help to reduce light pollution [6]. An excellent article by Gaston, Davies, Bennie, and Hopkins [7] summarizes the current state of the efforts to reduce light pollution.  They first summarize the various forms of light pollution: 1) glare and over-illumination (caused by excessive brightness of a light source); 2) light clutter (excessive grouping of light sources); 3) light trespass (unwanted direct lighting of an area); and 4) skyglow (increased night sky brightness produced by upwardly emitted and reflected light).  They then proceed to analyze and discuss the various ways to reduce light pollution.  These include such measures as zoning ordinances which prohibit artificial light in certain environmentally sensitive areas; reducing the duration of lighting; reducing the intensity of light to minimum levels needed for safety and human activity; reducing light trespass and skyglow through properly designed directional lighting; and broadening the spectrum of lights used to more nearly mimic those found in nature.  In terms of the three types of lighting devices under consideration here, LEDs offer some distinct advantages related to light pollution as discussed in greater detail below. 

4.    Color Rendition—Color rendition refers to the appearance of various objects illuminated by a light source, compared to how those same objects appear in natural sunlight. Certain light sources with poor color rendition make objects appear unnaturally red, yellow or blue. In general, the best light sources for general use are those that mimic the wavelengths present in natural sunlight (a fairly broad spectrum).  In certain non-critical, limited applications, lights having poor color rendition (such as low pressure sodium lamps often found in underground parking structures) can be used, if their energy efficiency, cost, and durability outweigh color rendition considerations.  But, for most sustained activities involving humans, broad spectrum lights are more efficacious and healthier for occupants.  Color rendition has been quantified by lighting designers through the Color Rendition Index (CRI) [8].  A CRI of 100 is considered the perfect light source in terms of color rendition, with natural sunlight having essentially a CRI of 100.  One of the advantages of incandescent bulbs is that their color rendition is excellent (CRI approximately equal to 100).  At the other end of the CRI spectrum are specialty lighting sources, such as the yellow low pressure sodium lamps discussed above, which actually have a negative value of CRI, so poor is their color rendition.  CFLs have historically been criticized for casting a blue tint on objects, although some of the “warm white” CFLs that are available are designed to somewhat minimize this blue tint.  A typical CFL has a CRI of between 50 and 70.  A positive feature of LEDs is their CRI, which while not as good as incandescents, is an improvement over CFLs.  CRIs of between 80 and 90 are typical for today’s LED lamps.   

Future Directions for More Sustainable Lighting Systems:

          What are the future trends in lighting?  The first is clearly a drive toward increased energy efficiency.  For this reason, the most common lamp will be the LED.  As discussed previously, it is more efficient than the incandescent bulb, has fewer environmental impacts than CFLs, has a very long life, and has reasonably good color rendition.  It is currently quite expensive, but costs are projected to drop as manufacturing is ramped up and production volumes increase.   The CFL--the most common energy-efficient alternative to the incandescent bulb in use currently--will likely vanish once LEDs become more cost competitive.  Most lighting experts agree that the CFL is an interim technology.  It suffers from a number of shortcomings in addition to its negative environmental impacts and mediocre color rendition.  Additional shortcomings include a lack of directionality and poor dimming capabilities.  The “dimmable” CFLs currently on the market generally perform poorly, exhibiting a narrow range of light intensity modulation and an audible buzzing sound while in operation. Perhaps most surprisingly, and despite the current phase-out of conventional tungsten filament incandescent bulbs, other types of incandescent lamps will likely continue to be used for specialized applications.  For example, halogen lamps (a type of incandescent bulb which is somewhat more energy efficient than tungsten-based incandescent bulbs) will continue in production and will be the preferred lighting source where exceptional color rendition is needed, such as in art museums, photography studios, and for commercial displays.

According to nationally-recognized lighting designer James R. Benya [9], additional future lighting trends will include:  

o   More efficient luminaires–the luminaire is the technical term for the light fixture that the lamp (i.e. the bulb) is placed in.  New luminaire designs promote directional lighting and effective shading. Light is directed onto the required task, and shading to mitigate light pollution is incorporated into the design.  Energy is also conserved because overall levels of illumination can be reduced, with light focused more efficiently on task areas.  LEDs are particularly compatible with this new concept in luminaire design because they are highly directional and exhibit little light scatter.

o   Integrated use of daylighting – Obviously, the most sustainable form of light is sunlight.  It costs us nothing and has no negative environment impacts.  In fact, humans who work in a day-lit environment report a greater sense of well-being than those who work under artificial lights.  The problem with extensive use of daylighting in the past has been that it is ephemeral, with optimum light levels only lasting for a few hours at most, depending on building orientation.  The rest of the time, the space is either over-lit or under-lit.  Modern control systems that employ light sensors and automated shading devices can optimize light levels in a room.  When daylight levels are high, all artificial lights are automatically turned off, conserving energy, and are gradually turned back on, in modulated fashion, as daylight dwindles.  If daylight levels are too intense, automated shading devices are used to adjust light levels to optimum intensity.  Daylighting, coupled with advanced control systems, offers an opportunity to reduce the need for artificial lights dramatically, provided a building is designed with suitable architecture and with daylighting as a design objective.

o   “Just enough light levels”-- Recent advances in understanding human physiology have allowed us to know how much light is needed for various tasks.  Any light in addition to required levels is wasted energy. Hence, we can design around the optimum levels needed for various tasks, and can eliminate excess wattage.  To allow for differences in light levels needed by different individuals, due to variations such as age, visual acuity, etc., task lighting can be designed with adjustable controls, so that occupants can dim or increase light levels to accommodate individual preferences.

o   Infrared sensors (IR) and/or motion sensors for outdoor lighting -- The use of outdoor path and security lighting contributes to light pollution, even if it is properly shaded to minimize light trespass.  One technique that will become increasingly common in the future will be to integrate IR or motion sensors into the control systems for outdoor lights.  When people are not present, such systems will be turned off completely.  This will further reduce light pollution and also save energy.  LED life is not adversely affected by on/off cycling like incandescents are, so there is no  downside to turning them off as much as required.

     Public recognition of the need for sustainable lighting systems is as critical as having the technology required to implement them.  As education about the importance of sustained periods of darkness to Earth’s ecology and to human health increases, public interest in better designed and controlled lighting systems will increase.  Many counties and municipalities have already incorporated light pollution codes into their zoning ordinances. For example, Cochise County, Arizona, has a particularly detailed and comprehensive Light Pollution Code on their website, .  Many other areas are promoting voluntary light reduction campaigns, coupled with education about the need for reduced and/or better designed lighting.  The Hudson Highlands area of New York state provides a good example of such a voluntary approach, .   While we will never return to the periods of deep darkness experienced by our ancestors before the advent of artificial lights, the world of the future will most likely be somewhat less brilliantly lit than the developed world of the late 20th and early 21st century that many of us are used to.  Even the most light-polluted city in the United States--Las Vegas, Nevada, with its lighting excesses (e.g. the infamous Las Vegas Strip)--has recently installed new LED streetlights, designed to save energy and reduce glare.   That says it all.

I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.

Og Mandino

References and Further Reading:

  1. Ekirch, A. Roger (2006), At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. W.W. Norton and Company.  ISBN-10: 0393329011.
  2. United States Department of Energy (October 17, 2013), Fluorescent Lighting.   Retrieved from .
  3. United States Department of Energy (July 29, 2012), LED Lighting. Retrieved from .
  4. Lim, S., et al, “Potential Environmental Impacts from the Metals in Incandescent, Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL), and Light-Emitting Diode (LED) Bulbs,” Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 47, No. 2, January, 2013.
  5. Hollan, J., “What is Light Pollution, and How Do We Quantify It?Darksky2008 Conference Paper, Vienna, August 2008.
  7. Gaston, K., Davies, T., Bennie, J., and Hopkins, J., “Reducing the Ecological Consequences of Night-Time Light Pollution:  Options and Developments,” Journal of Applied Ecology,  Vol. 49, p. 1256-1266, 2012.
  8. Guo, X. and Houser, K.W., “A Review of Color Rendering Indices and Their Application to Commercial Light Sources,“ Lighting Research and Technology, Vol. 36, No. 3, p. 183-197, September 2004.
  9. The Energy Center UniversitySM Short Course , Lighting and Daylighting: Design, Controls, and Technology, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, October 2, 2013. 


      In the Summer of 2014, look for Installment Ten of this series.  The issues surrounding making the world’s fisheries sustainable will be explored using the work Fishermen Hauling in their Nets at Sea by French artist Georges-Jean-Marie Haquette as inspiration.                        

The Printshop low resolution image.jpg

The Print Shop, oil on canvas by German artist, D. Heim, depicting a duplex printing press, converted from steam to electric power, ca. 1900.





The invention of the printing press is widely recognized as one of the most significant developments in all of human history.  With it knowledge and ideas could be widely disseminated, setting the stage for the Enlightenment, and helping to usher in the modern era.  Influential authors are responsible, in whole or in part, for initiating major societal movements including the Protestant Reformation (i.e., the Bible printed in the local vernacular), the abolition of slavery in the United States (think about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin), women’s suffrage in Britain and the U.S., and innumerable others, including the rise of the modern environmental movement. 


In this essay, we examine the contributions and impact of several notable American environmental writers spanning the period from the Early Republic through the 20th Century.  We will look briefly at the contributions of James Madison, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson in furthering the modern environmental movement.  Arguably, not only were these individuals responsible for starting the environmental movement within the U.S. but also globally.  Without their contributions, it is likely that the importance of environmental stewardship and sustainability would not be widely recognized or understood.  We will also consider what characteristics future works of literature will need in order to support environmental progress globally.  Who will the Rachel Carson of the 21st century be, and what form will her work take in our current digital age?

The Modern Environmental Movement and the Authors who Contributed to It:

The noted environmental scholar, Ramachandra Guha [1], describes two phases in the development of the modern environmental movement: the First and Second Waves. The First Wave was characterized by the development of intellectual thought centering on the need for and importance of environmental stewardship and protection.  The Second Wave was characterized by the popularization of environmental ideas and philosophies developed during the First Wave and their subsequent broad-based adoption by the general population.  The broad-based adoption of the notions of environmentalism by the general population was the catalyst within the United States that led the federal government to adopt laws and regulations to protect the environment through statutory means. From the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, the United States was the first industrialized nation to adopt comprehensive federal laws to protect the environment.  Other developed nations, especially those in Western Europe and Japan, soon followed.


The First Wave spans the approximate time period from the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 18th century through the decade of the 1960s.  During this time, many authors and intellectuals wrote extensively in response to the observed degradation of the natural world as evidenced by rapid deforestation, uncontrolled hunting of such species as the American Bison and Passenger Pigeon, and the extensive burning of coal which generated smog in major cities like London, among other examples.  Some of the earliest authors writing in this genre were from Great Britain. For example, the great romantic age British poets William Wordsworth and William Blake wrote eloquently of the rural ideal.  However, starting in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a preponderance of the writings on nature and conservation--which are precursors to environmentalism as we now understand it--were American in origin.

There are a number of noteworthy American authors who in some way contributed to an appreciation of the natural world during this First Wave period.  However, this essay will feature several whose works most significantly influenced the nascent environmental movement during the First Wave--namely, James Madison, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.

James Madison (the fourth President of the United States) may not be as well known for his environmental sensibilities as he is for his political accomplishments but his contribution to the First Wave is significant nonetheless.  Like several other of America’s Founding Fathers (e.g., George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams), Madison was a landowner and a farmer.  His identity as a farmer predated his involvement in the American Revolution and politics and it profoundly shaped his world view.  In fact, Madison, along with the other Founding Fathers, based much of the philosophy of the American system of government on a vision of America’s citizenry being a nation of yeoman farmers and landowners.   A fascinating book that connects the agricultural roots of America’s founders to the system of government they advocated is Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners, The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation [2].  Madison, more than the other founders, understood the connection between agriculture and ecology.  While the likes of Thomas Jefferson wrote extensively about proper farming practices and what crop varieties were preferred, Madison wrote the following in his famous 1818 address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle [3]:

“The earth contains not less than thirty or forty thousand kinds of plants; not less than six or seven hundred of birds; nor less than three or four hundred of quadrupeds; to say nothing of the thousand species of fishes. Of reptiles and insects, there are more than can be numbered. To all these must be added, the swarms and varieties of animalcules and minute vegetables not visible to the natural eye, but whose existence is probably connected with that of visible animals and plants.”

“On comparing this vast profusion and multiplicity of beings with the few grains and grasses, the few herbs and roots, and the few fowls and quadrupeds, which make up the short list adapted to the wants of man, it is difficult to believe that it lies with him so to remodel the work of nature as it would be remodelled, by a destruction not only of individuals, but of entire species; and not only of a few species, but of every species, with the very few exceptions which he might spare for his own accommodation.”

In these two paragraphs, Madison sets forth two principles that are foundational to the modern environmental movement: (1) the interconnectedness of all the species in a given ecosystem—both visible and microscopic, and (2) that man has no right to alter or destroy the natural ecosystem just to further his own objectives.  This second principle contradicts the earlier Puritan notion of man’s right to have dominion over the Earth.

          With the passing of the Revolutionary generation, a new generation of American naturalists emerged.  This generation is epitomized by Henry David Thoreau, born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts.  Thoreau belonged to the Transcendentalist movement, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May Alcott) [4]. Transcendentalists believed that spiritual fulfillment was to be found through immersion in and study of the natural world, not through institutionalized religion. Thoreau’s most famous literary work, Walden, recounts the two years he spent living a primitive life in the Massachusetts woods near Walden Pond.  Walden, along with several essays he wrote late in life, advocate for Thoreau’s views on what is now known as ecology.   Thoreau’s other most famous literary work--the essay, Civil Disobedience--is also significant to the modern environmental movement.  Although Thoreau intended Civil Disobedience to be a critique on overly intrusive government and a treatise for how citizens should protest government actions they view to be unjust, his ideas of non-violent resistance were later used by activists such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King to promote social change.  Within today’s environmental movement, such organizations as Greenpeace employ Thoreau’s principles of non-violent resistance. 

          The Transcendentalist Movement deeply influenced another major environmental writer and advocate--John Muir.  Muir, born in Scotland in 1835, immigrated to the US with his parents as a child and was raised on a farm in Wisconsin.  He attended the University of Wisconsin Madison for several years, but never earned a degree because his choices of classes were too broad and eclectic to qualify as a concentrated major.  While at Madison, he studied chemistry, botany, geology, and various other subjects, which he later in life said may not have earned him a degree, but which prepared him ‘for his future wanderings’ [5]. After college, Muir traveled pretty much continuously for the next two decades.  Immediately following college he traveled for six years, visiting, in succession: Canada, Florida, Cuba, and New York.  It was during this time that he made his famous 1000 mile nature walk from Indiana to Florida. After a brief time in New York, Muir booked passage on a ship to California.  He ended up in the Yosemite area of California in 1868, where he lived in a primitive cabin for the next six years, studying Yosemite’s geology, wildlife, and botany, and reading and writing extensively. While in Yosemite, he struggled to survive because he was frequently unemployed and had no prospects for a career.  During this difficult time, Muir took solace in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in doing so adopted many of the philosophical beliefs of Transcendentalism, which were layered upon his existing scientific training and knowledge.  In the mid 1870s, Muir traveled to Alaska and was one of the first European Americans to explore Glacier Bay.  Several years later, he traveled to Washington state and spent time climbing Mount Rainier and writing Ascent of Mount Rainier.  In his mid 40s, Muir married the daughter of a California fruit ranch owner and  settled down, managing the ranch, and continuing to write and advocate on behalf of the wilderness, and especially on behalf of the Yosemite area.   He was responsible for Yosemite becoming a national park and he was the co-founder of the Sierra Club, an organization that still exists to advocate on behalf of environmental stewardship and responsible use of the Earth’s resources [6].  Muir’s views on the environment were characterized by a belief in preservation rather than conservation.  He believed that wild areas should be left undisturbed, rather than believing that it was proper to merely manage them in a sustainable manner.  In this view, he differed from other conservationists of his day, who argued for “responsible” use of natural resources, such as the selective cutting of timber in natural areas and limited hunting of game.  Perhaps Muir’s biggest legacy within the environmental movement was that he was among the first of America’s environmental writers who was also an activist.  He not only wrote about nature and about the need for preservation, but lobbied and organized effectively for change.  In this way, he was perhaps more like modern environmentalists than any of his contemporaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


          The last of the First Wave environmental writers we will explore is Aldo Leopold. Leopold, born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, was drawn to the outdoors as a child, where he avidly hiked and catalogued species of birds, plants, and animals that he observed in the wild. Upon hearing of a new college program in forestry started at Yale University in 1900, the 13 year old Leopold decided on a career in forestry.  He ultimately entered that program at Yale in 1905.  Upon graduation from Yale, he worked for the US Forest Service, primarily in Arizona and New Mexico for the next 15 years, where he developed the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon, and helped to establish a wilderness designation for the Gila Wilderness Area, the first such wilderness area set-aside in the US Forest Service system.  The Forest Service transferred him to the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1924 to serve there as its associate director.  He was subsequently appointed to a professorship in Game Management at the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1933.  While living in Madison and teaching there, he bought an eighty acre farm in central Wisconsin where he spent vacations and weekends.  It was on this farm that the inspiration for Leopold’s seminal environmental work, A Sand County Almanac [7], was born. Leopold worked the land on the farm to help restore its natural ecosystem because the farm had been logged and overgrazed at the time he purchased it.  He used his observations of the farm’s ecosystem along with his past experiences in forestry as inspiration for the essays in A Sand County Almanac.  Through these essays, Leopold reveals an environmental philosophy that includes a “wilderness ethic” similar to Muir’s.  He believed that wild places should be valued for their own sake and left undisturbed whenever possible rather than “managed.” This view put him into opposition with the utilitarian conservationists of the early 20th century such as Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt.  The utilitarian conservationists advocated that nature be conserved so that it could be enjoyed by man through hunting and other recreational activities. Leopold also advocated for the “land ethic,” a concept which encourages the management of wildlife habitats by both public and private landowners.  Leopold believed that adequate conservation of ecosystems could not occur just by managing public lands, and that private landowners, educated in the basics of ecology and the scientific principles of land management, needed to embrace these principles if sufficient conservation was to occur.  A Sand Country Almanac was almost never published because Leopold finished it only a month before he died.  His family was instrumental in its subsequent publication in 1949 [8].  In some sense, Leopold can be viewed as a bridge between the First and Second Wave environmental writers because his writings did engage large numbers of readers who were already outdoor enthusiasts.  However, the larger population remained generally unaware of the importance of his works until they were re-popularized after the Second Wave had arrived.


          In moving from the First Wave to the Second Wave of environmentalism, we move from a period in which environmental writing and thought were largely the realm of intellectuals and academics to a period when environmentalism was embraced by large cross sections of the American populace.  This represents a significant paradigm shift because it was a necessary precursor to the major federal environmental regulations passed in the late 1960s and 1970s, e.g., the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Superfund legislation, and the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Environmental scholar and activist Martin Branagan asserts that without grassroots support fundamental environmental reform is not possible [9].  Thus, without the shift from the First Wave to the Second Wave of the environmental movement, our current level of environmental protections and reforms would not have occurred.  The environmental writer who almost single-handedly ushered in the Second Wave was Rachel Carson.


          Rachel Carson, born in 1907, held an MS degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins and worked for two decades in relative anonymity as a science editor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  During this time, she also did freelance journalism for a number of popular publications such as the Atlantic Monthly, primarily on topics related to the oceans and the ecosystems of the sea.  She first became nationally known for her best-selling books on the oceans--The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea.   The Sea Around Us garnered her the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1952.  For some time, she had been reading research studies and reviewing anecdotal accounts of the impact of pesticides on the natural world.  She became convinced that synthetic pesticides, especially DDT, were responsible for significant environmental damage, including the decline of a number of bird species.  At the encouragement of E.B. White, then the editor of The New Yorker, she embarked on an investigative journalism project to document pesticide impacts.  Silent Spring, published in 1962, was the result of her efforts.  This book, which contains an allegorical account of an American town without birds and other wildlife, captured the imagination of the American public like no book on the environment up to that point in time.  So impactful was Silent Spring that Carson was invited to testify before Congress in 1963 on the dangers of pesticides.  DDT was banned shortly thereafter, and the major pieces of environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s that continue in effect to the present day, e.g. the Clean Water Act, are directly attributable to popular and political support created by the publication of Silent Spring. It seemed that the only entities not enthralled with Carson’s work were a number of the major chemical corporations who produced DDT and other synthetic pesticides.  These companies spent large sums of money trying to discredit Carson and to smear her reputation, accusing her of junk science, and warning the American public that without pesticides, America would soon be so overrun by insects that we would be unable to grow enough food to feed our population [10].  Despite these scare tactics, the modern environmental movement in America was born.  Silent Spring was translated into a number of languages and also helped to ignite the world-wide environmental movement.    


The Future of Environmental Action and How It might be shaped through Literature:

          By certain narrow measures, our environment today is in much better condition than in 1962.  Through the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Superfund legislation, and a host of other regulatory actions, both in the US and abroad, we are now required to clean up many of the damaging by-products we generate in our daily lives before they enter the environment. Municipal and industrial waste water treatment is now the norm in the developed world; Lake Erie, a ‘dead’ lake in the 1960s, now supports a thriving Walleye population.  In the developed world, air emissions of toxic chemicals from power plants and other industrial sources have been significantly reduced. Recognition is beginning to dawn on the governments of China and India that air pollution threatens their peoples and economies, and in the near future air pollution controls like those used in the West will likely become more commonplace.  New pesticides and herbicides must undergo testing protocols before being allowed on the market to demonstrate they are safe.  There are many other similar examples.

          In a broader sense, however, the world faces environmental problems that are global and so fundamental in nature that they must be addressed if Earth, as we know it, is to survive.   Greenhouse gas emissions linked to global climate change, potable water shortages worldwide, deforestation, and overfishing of the oceans are just a few of the severe impacts we face as a planet.  Unlike the environmental battles in the 1960s and 1970s which were focused on narrow issues and geographically limited in scope, today’s environmental problems can only be effectively addressed on a global scale and they will require significant changes in how man interacts with the planet.  Wealthy multinational corporations with vested interests in the status quo along with dysfunctional political systems in many nations hamper direct action. 

     Given the scope of world environmental problems, is it even plausible that environmental writers can be drivers for fundamental reform?   The answer to this question is uncertain, but were such writers to emerge, their work would need to possess these characteristics:

  • ·       It would engage readers on both a rational and emotional level, as have all transformative literary works of the past.


  • ·       It would build a persuasive case against the modern materialist mind-set.  Humans cannot continue to use earth resources at the rate they are. It is unsustainable to try to support a life-style like that experienced in the U.S. during the 20th century.  This does not mean humanity must return to the Dark Ages, but it will require that we refocus our interests in a direction that does not promote rabid consumption.  It also means that we will have to make maximum use of energy conservation, renewable energy sources, water conservation and reuse, sustainable wildlife, forestry and farming practices, and materials reuse and recycling on a global scale.   The challenge will be for writers to frame this new paradigm in a way so that it is perceived as positive and even enjoyable rather than as sacrificial.  
  • ·       It would appeal to a broad spectrum of religions, cultures, and types of government. Not only do we live in a diverse world, but society seems to be becoming increasingly fractious, with the spirit of cooperation and civil discourse increasingly rare.  There is pressure to demonize the “other.”  The mass media, rather than helping to correct this, has been complicit in fostering it through sensational journalism and reporting.  The effective writer will have to make the case that there is more that connects us as humans than divides us.  He will also have to build the case that it is in the best interests of all to cooperate in addressing global environmental concerns.    


  • ·       It would build the economic case.  Those who argue against the sorts of paradigm shifts needed to ensure a sustainable future for planet Earth and its inhabitants often use arguments based on economics.  They claim such changes are too expensive.  They claim such changes will result in the loss of competitive advantage of one nation over another.  They claim such changes will result in diminished economic status for all.   The economic case must be made persuasively that the ultimate costs of doing nothing will dwarf the costs of any changes we implement now.  Such economic arguments are well developed within academia, but they need to be presented in an accessible and engaging way.


  • ·       It would promote grassroots action.  Governments and corporations tend to favor the status quo unless constituents and customers argue for change.  Even in non-democracies such as China, citizen pressure can foster change.  


  • ·       It would be presented using media that effectively engage 21st century minds and which takes full advantage of the digital revolution. Smart phones, Facebook and other social media sites, graphic novels, interactive computer gaming, the Internet, e-Books….  There is a lengthy list of new media and devices through which writers can reach their audiences.  The transformative environmental writer of the future will have to engage people using these media.


     Ever since Gutenberg, major social changes have been catalyzed through literature.   While 21st century environmental challenges are daunting, they, too, can be addressed through building a global consensus.  It is fortunate that such a consensus can be promoted through literature:

The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.



References and Further Reading:

  1. Guha, Ramachandra, Environmentalism: A Global History, Longman Publishing, 2000.  ISBN 0-321-01169-4.
  2. Wulf, Andrea, Founding Gardeners, the Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-26990-4.
  3. Madison, James, “Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, 12 May 1818,” The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, Volume 1: 4 March 1817-31, January 1820, edited by David B Mattern, J.C.A. Stagg, Mary Parke-Johnson, and Anne Mandeville Colony.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
  4. Witherwell, E., and DuBrulle, E., “The Life and Times of Henry David Thoreau”, published by the Thoreau Library, for the 150th anniversary celebration of the publication of Walden, 1995.
  5. Holmes, S.J., Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography, University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. ISBN 10: 0299161544.
  6. “John Muir”, Wikipedia, 
  7. Leopold, A., A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River, republished by Ballantine Books in 1986, ISBN -10: 0345345053.
  8. Meine, C., Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI, 1988.  ISBN 0-299-11490-2.
  9. Branagan, M., “Environmental Education, Activism, and the Arts,” Convergence, Vol. 38, No. 4, 2005, p.33-50.
  10. Griswold, E., “How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement”, The New York Times Magazine, September 21, 2012.


Coming in early 2014 is Installment Nine of this series:  “From Lanterns to LEDs – A Look at the Evolution of Sustainable Lighting,” an essay inspired by the painting Glassblowing by Hugo von Bouvard.  

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