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Grocery-store Environmental Indicators?

2008 June 26

About the author: Larry Teller joined EPA’s Philadelphia office in its early months and has worked in environmental assessment, state and congressional liaison, enforcement, and communications. His 28 years with the U.S. Air Force, most as a reservist, give him a different look at government service.

I’ve worked for decades at one of the government’s largest science agencies, witnessing how information is carefully collected and rigorously used to make truly important decisions about, for example,

I’ve had a hand in few, but have learned how important it is to make decisions based on well-chosen data and sound reasoning. So it’s been gratifying to see EPA’s (and especially my regional office’s) sustained interest in developing environmental indicators to guide the agency’s work. EPA defines an environmental indicator as a “numerical value that helps provide insight into the state of the environment or human health … based on quantitative measurements or statistics of environmental condition tracked over time.” Higher order indicators track, ultimately, environmental health, while lesser indicators in a multi-level hierarchy portray changes in ambient conditions and environmental protection actions.

Here are my two favorite, if unconventional, indicators; one has gained 20 years of growing popularity and validity (not mine) and one is new, unknown and possibly shaky (mine).

  • Maryland Senator Bernie Fowler leading a crowd down the bank of a waterbody.Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler leads annual wade-ins in streams of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He and friends see how deep they can walk and still see their sneakers—as a measure of water clarity, and a great way to connect people to this great but vulnerable natural resource.
  • To test how people have started adapting to expensive gas, I began a year ago to track the percent of SUVs and pickups in the parking lot during my weekly supermarket trips. (Does it kill you, too, to see a lone driver use a 6,000 pound SUV to buy groceries?) I know it takes years for the fleet to be replaced, but my year’s “findings,” it seems, are significant and encouraging.

Which low-tech indicators do you use, or propose, that can tell us something interesting about our world’s health?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Sally G permalink
    July 1, 2008

    Wade-ins are a great idea! We used to do this informally “down the shore:” as kids; how far can you go and still see your feet? It gave us an indicator of how clean the water was; of course, the Atlantic is not clear because of natural growth, but I remember my sister’s amazement that our grandmother used to swim in the Hudson River, and her concern that she might someday have to tell her grandkids a similar story about the ocean. I’ll suggest wade-ins to the local RiverKeeper organization.
    Yes, I hate to see a lone driver in an SUV, but I try not to judge–I can’t know the full story behind it (not sure what that could be, but I try to think positively of anyone I meet). It is encouraging to see the gradual ‘downsizing” and “greening” of autos; I hope it survives in the unlikely event of gas prices going down–it didn’t in the 1970s. More and more states are following California’s lead in reducing auto pollution; I hope that the EPA and houses of Congress can get behind similar federal legislaton so we don’t have to fight a national (and continental) issue state by state.

  2. Charles Miller permalink
    September 23, 2009

    Great stories! I love the part about the “wade in”

    I notice a shift in two things at the grocery store:

    – The level and predominance of packaging on items at the grocery store

    – The balance of non-packaged vs packaged foods at the grocery store

    These items are an indicator of people choosing healthy choices, and moving away from the gulttonous overpackaged items.

  3. Naples Dentist permalink
    August 15, 2011

    Thanks, for discussing. It is so much benifited for me. I get much information about your discussion. I thing it is very important for us.

  4. Emily Horton-Hall permalink
    August 18, 2011

    I love the idea of the wade-ins! I would love to see something like that in my state (Rhode Island). I will definitely look further into this. Thanks for the great post (even if I’m 3 years late in commenting!)

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