Compartmentalizing the Problem
Moving to Washington DC has greatly expanded my knowledge of the US government. In addition to providing me with a whole new alphabet soup of acronyms to memorize, this has also made me acutely aware of just how many agencies, departments, and divisions comprise the federal government of the United States. I was first exposed to this grand complexity of governmental compartmentalization as an undergraduate while interning at the Federal Highway Administration and the US EPA. But forgive me for being short. I actually interned with the Air Quality Team in the Office of Natural and Human Environments, which was under the Planning and Environment and Realty Division of the Federal Highway Administration, which is a subdivision of the Department of Transportation. And by EPA, I mean that I interned at the Exposure Modeling and Analysis Branch of the Human Exposure and Atmospheric Science Division of the National Exposure Research Laboratory in the Office of Research and Development of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Phew! Needless to say, my experiences interning revealed a lot of time devoted to communication. Hours each week were spent coordinating phone calls, emails and teleconferences between different divisions, agencies and contractors. But aside from causing more chaos in terms of communicating due to the physical barriers imposed by the compartmentalization, it seems that these arrangements could, and likely do, imposed intellectual barriers to productivity as well. It all depends on the mission with which these organizations are charged.
In many instances this compartmentalization works well. Particularly for organizations with a heavy research component, certain jobs and focus areas naturally fall into different subunits and creating smaller divisions likely makes supervision of positions more manageable and offices a more personable atmosphere. As a left-brain dominant engineer, I understand the urge to put things in neat categorized departments and historically this ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy has solved many important problems, especially in the environmental realm. Since the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, many environmental problems have been addressed largely in isolation. To reduce lead levels in the bloodstream of children, we took lead out of gasoline and paint. To mitigate the acidification of lakes, we controlled sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. We have solved these problems independently with demonstrated success. But as our technologies have gotten more complex so have the environmental issues associated with them. For example, an increasing body of research suggests that nanotechnology may have more environmental and health impacts than we originally anticipated. Air pollution research is now turning toward multi-pollutant studies with some work suggesting that the synergistic effects of ambient pollutant mixes on human health may be worse than that from individual pollutants. And these issues are just looking at specific environmental health fields. In an age where we are now faced with much larger problems like climate change and sustainable energy production, the science and politics involved in meeting the challenges have gotten fantastically complex.
The late Peter Berg advocated for the formation of a US Department of Sustainability and I think he is right. Sustainability is unique from past environmental problems in that it is not contained within a single discipline but rather spans across many, and accordingly, demands experts in diverse areas. Even if we focus on strictly the technical research side of sustainability, research centers in academic institutions tend to include faculty from many different subject areas. And when we add political barriers, even more experts are needed. The big picture goals of sustainability require foresight and systems-level thinking but the specific strategies and benchmarks along the way require highly specialized experts to innovate, construct strategies and evaluate progress. As a result, a whole slew of scientists, engineers, economists and politicians will be needed for a well-developed plan of action to be implemented on a national scale. If we were to bring together experts in urban planning, plant and animal biology, economics, transportation, and renewable energy technologies, for example, then advances on the front of sustainability could be made faster and in a more economical and energy-saving manner. While there are occasions where the placement of government activities in deliberately separate departments makes sense in order to eliminate conflicts of interest, such as the breakup of the Minerals Management Service following the Gulf oil spill, separate departments isn’t conducive for productivity in a multi-faceted discipline like sustainability. Meeting the overall goals of sustainability will be challenging enough without having the added burden of coordination between different government departments.
Our government is starting to get the idea with a new Partnership for Sustainable Communities project, a collaboration between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The concept is to coordinate federal housing, transportation, water, and other infrastructure investments with the goal of making neighborhoods more prosperous, equitable and environmentally healthy. Projects like these can help move us in the right direction by facilitating collaboration between people and departments with diverse skillsets to work toward a shared goal.
When explaining their relationship with the EPA, an employee at the Federal Highway Administration told me, “We just have different values. They value the natural environment and we value mobility.” This perhaps gets us to the root of the problem. If separate organizations within the government perceive themselves as having mutually exclusive value systems dictating the work they do, its no surprise that departments often have contradicting policies and programs. In an environment like this, achieving anything on the multi-dimensional front of sustainability will be difficult at best. But as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities suggests, if we can bring together resources, ideas, experts and funds under the same umbrella and unite them with the same overall mission of a more sustainable nation, I have no doubt that progress will follow.