The United States has moved from a status as the world's leading nation in environmental protection to opponent of stringent environmental regulation, particularly in conservative Republican administrations following the election to the presidency of Ronald Reagan in 1980.9 The United States entered the era of environmentalism with high per capita rates of fossil fuel combustion, serious air and water pollution, uncontrolled industrial waste disposal, waste water and waste management problems, rising rates of air pollution from vehicles, water pollution from agricultural soil erosion, and steady losses of natural wetlands and landscape.

The American system of policy-making, as compared to other postindustrial states, is quite fragmented—between national and sub-national governments, among and even between branches of government. The system offers countless opportunities for political mobilization and influence. The two-party system diffuses the impact of environmental change. Congress, the courts, local governments play stronger roles than elsewhere; the executive and bureaucracy are correspondingly weaker. A large number and diverse array of environmental organizations faces an equally diverse pattern of business groups. Some are conservative ideologically, a few benefit from environmental regulations but the most powerful opposition comes from economically weighty and high pollution sectors such as mining, the energy industry, logging, and agribusiness.

Andrews comments that environmental policy capacity in the U.S. has developed in patterns that are uneven, adversarial, and politically unstable. Although the EPA was the world's first environmental agency, and given sweeping regulatory powers and a large budget, it continues to lack an overall statutory mission. The U.S. has the most extensive scientific and technical capacity to support environmental policy-making, but support from proponents, while increasing after 1970, eroded somewhat because of economic fears during stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

U.S. capacity building is less influenced by international events than in other countries. American environmental policy is integrated only when strong leaders have taken the initiative; administratively, it is fragmented. The primary paradigm for pollution control policy has been national minimum standards and program requirements based on technological controls of industrial and municipal pollution sources and on substance-by-substance standards for hazardous contaminants. American "best practice" regulations have reduced pollution, but this system has been costly and inefficient. Alternatives promising lower costs—such as risk-based decision-making, pollution prevention, and market-oriented incentives—have been introduced only on a limited scale.10 The most powerful market incentives in the U.S. are economic liability for pollution cleanup and the regulatory process itself.

Overall, U.S. environmental policies have corrected some of the most acute problems and slowed or worsened others. Scheberle cites these improvements:

(N)ational airborne levels of lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone decreased between 1980 and 1999, sometimes significantly: 94 percent, 57 percent, 25 percent, and 20 percent, respectively. Approximately 30 percent less hazardous waste was generated and sent to treatment facilities, and roughly 60 percent of assessed U.S. streams, lakes, and estuaries could support their designated uses, such as fishing and swimming.11

The U.S. has pioneered many innovative concepts and instruments of environmental policy, for example the environmental impact statement, tradable emissions allowances, and citizen lawsuits to compel environmentally protective action. However, the basic structures of policy have not evolved toward pollution prevention and ecological modernization. Reforms remain experiments at the margin of regulatory mandates. Policies focus on pollution control, not prevention, with few serious restrictions on farms, land development, small businesses, local governments, and individual behavior such as vehicle use as compared to restrictions on large manufacturing plants.

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