Grocery-store Environmental Indicators?

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?