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Pollution Paradigms

A new approach to environmental protection?

Illinois Times

August 27, 1992

In which I complain, not for the first time, that in the generation follwing passage of the U.S. Environmental Protection Act in 1972, environmental protection remained a bigger issue than environmental regulation, yet for 25 years we have argued about the former almost exclusively in terms of the latter.

This version varies slightly from the original. I was tempted to vary the hell out of it when I was reminded that I had complained that U.S. EPA policies restricting use of Illinois coal and fuel ethanol showed an anti-Midwest bias, when in fact it is Illinois that shows an anti-environment bias by supporting coal and ethanol. Oh well. Times changes, facts change, opinions change. The rest of it is okay.


Apart from attending going-away parties for laid-off staffers, state government's deeper thinkers spend most of their time these days looking for new policy paradigms. It is thankless work, by and large—their bosses usually can't even spell the word—but it is essential if life in this blessed commonwealth is to progress, quality-of-life-wise.


Perhaps no major set of programs in Illinois is more badly in need of fresh thinking than environmental protection. Even the people who run the system now in place don't like it, calling it litigious, expensive, divisive, and inefficient—and those are the words they use when they know journalists are listening.


Only some 20 years old, the present system is decrepit. At the practical level, the problem is ignorance. We still don't know for sure what harm most pollutants do or how, nor do we know enough about ecosystems to predict how pollutants move through air, soil, and water and how they change along the way. At the philosophical level, the problem is confusion. Environmental protection—real environmental protection—is a bigger issue than environmental regulation, yet for 25 years we have argued about the former almost exclusively in terms of the latter.


Simple "Stop, thief!" policies against the spewing smokestack and the puking pipe sufficed in the 1970s. By comparison, coping with atmospheric warming and "non-point" water pollution, with product packaging and car commuting, will require approaches of vexing subtlety and complexity.


Happily, the revolutions in computer and communications technology mean that it is now possible to monitor the impacts of human activity on the Illinois environment on a scale and in a detail never before possible. For example, state agencies will soon have the power to monitor land use using 20-yard-by-20-yard satellite snapshots, identifying problematic uses that threaten groundwater for example, or spotting changes in wetlands.


Less happily, environmental changes at the atmospheric scale remain beyond the ken of even our most awesome computing power. Global warming and acid rain are good examples. Regulators will have to balance environmental enhancement against economic cost in a context of scientific uncertainty. In the face of threats that refuse to reveal themselves clearly, we may have pay in jobs for reductions in atmospheric sulfur and greenhouse gases that will prove to be unneeded. Worse, we may have to pay ”knowing” that they may prove unneeded.


The Edgar administration's half-baked plan to merge the state's now-separate environmental research, rule-making, and enforcement agencies would have "streamlined" the process by consolidating it inside the IEPA. Such an approach assumes that the problem is bureaucratic, which misses the point. The problem is political. The IEPA's rules are essentially the USEPA's rules, its budget is substantially USEPA money. And USEPA policy is driven by a Congressional coalition that at the moment has no Midwestern representatives. As a result, the national environmental regulatory system has an anti-Midwest bias, and as long as IEPA functions as a surrogate of its national counterpart, the state's system will have that bias too.


Chauvinists have been making this complaint for years, as have the lackeys—you know who you are—of corporations irked at the agency for negating a competitive advantage. A state EPA that is hostage to local business interests is little more useful to the rest of us than one that is hostage to Washington. But the regulations that restrict the markets for Illinois ethanol of the kind they make in Decatur and for Illinois coal of the kind they dig in Pawnee are based more on Congressional politics than science. Furthermore, that politics is of a fairly venal sort, which makes their claims on Illinoisans suspect if not fraudulent.


Put your ear to any wall in the 62706 Zip Code area and you will hear talk that Illinois business is organizing a task force of some sort to rethink the system, with an eye toward legislation. The prospect of business setting Illinois's environmental regulatory agenda leaves a lot of people uneasy, especially now that the environmentalists who might be expected to defend the public interest are politically moribund.


Business can indeed be bad neighbors, and never more so when they are busy making the dumb stuff that everyone else wants to buy at the lowest possible price. But a skeptic would have to acknowledge that more of the economic disasters predicted by business during the last 20 years actually happened than the ecological disasters predicted with equal fervor by environmentalists. The problem then is not that business hasn't the right to restructure Illinois's environmental regulation system, but that they aren't likely to be very good at it, having spent 20 years trying to make systems of regulations not work rather than work.


Here I will presume to drop a hint or two for their edification. Any new system must have as its foundation not just new administrative arrangements but new ideas about how public business ought to be done. The process must include a feedback mechanism so it can learn from its own mistakes. (The only feedback mechanism in the present system is the regulatee's lobbyist and lawyer.) Negotiated rule-making and consensus decision-making on the European model are more equitable and efficient ways to set the specific goals of pollution regulation, and market incentives have proven to be more effective in achieving them than old command-and-control style regulations.


Perhaps the central flaw in the old system of pollution regulation was the refusal (political in origins, although masquerading as principle) to interfere in the production decisions of companies. The result was that we spent 20 years trying to corral in the environment at large tons of stuff that didn't need to be produced in the first place. Any new system must have as its central idea the prevention, rather than the control, of pollution.


Prevention is prudent from a public health standpoint.  Prevention also is politically more palatable, since it is always harder to get people to stop doing something they are already doing, especially if they are making money at it, than to not do something in the first place. Unfortunately, this is as true of bureaucracies as it is of car makers or plastics moguls. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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