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Quick Fixes For the Environment – Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?

Thomas Sterner, 2006 et. al. Environment Vol 48 No 10, pp. 20-27 (2006).


HUMANITY IS increasingly confronted with rapidly emerging large-scale environmental problems. In the last three years alone, the SARS epidemic—although largely contained in the end—spread rapidly from Southeast Asia to different points around the globe; Hurricane Katrina and its aftereffects devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast region; and a smelting operation accidentally released high levels of the carcinogen cadmium into China’s Xiang River basin. All such problems require immediate action to minimize suffering but are often aggravated by the gradual effects of previous shortsighted policies. These problems combine complex ecological mechanisms with difficult sociopolitical dilemmas. They are characterized by periodic, unpredictable events, creating a difficult choice between short-run responses that address symptoms—“quick fixes”—and more fundamental changes in our economy and lifestyles that remove or reduce the long-run drivers of the problems. Ouick fixes are sometimes appropriate because they work sufficiently well and/or buy time to design longer-term solutions. Moreover, although they frequently reduce long-term options, politicians often prefer to spend money on such quick fixes rather than incur the political costs of discouraging causal activities. Opposition to fundamental solutions stems from four sources that must be dealt with: lack of understanding of ecological mechanisms, failure to recognize the gravity of the problem, vested interests, and absence of institutions to address public goods and intergenerational choices effectively.

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