An Open Reply to “Crossing the Imaginary Line” – Initial Thoughts

My professional friend, David Sedlak has recently published an editorial on “Crossing the Imaginary Line” in Environmental Science & Technology – a highly reputed journal of which he is editor in chief.  My interpretation of the gist of Professor Sedlak’s argument is that when environmental engineering & science researchers, through their scholarship, uncover significant information that merits public attention, they should work through governmental bodies and non-governmental entities such that these latter organizations can take action to effect change.  Doing otherwise, such as going directly to media, according to Sedlak is risky because “an idealistic researcher might just step over the imaginary line that separates the dispassionate researcher from the environmental activist. “  This editorial is provoking discussion in the environmental engineering community, including amongst students as reflected in this student blog.

I would not encourage junior faculty to engage in direct advocacy to the media before establishing a strong record in traditional scholarship, teaching and outreach. However once established, I do not share Professor Sedlak’s view that going to the media is beyond an imaginary line.

Certainly it would be preferable for researchers to use conventional government agencies and non-governmental organizations as “force multipliers” to effect change.  However there can be circumstances where such routes are either non-existent, or perhaps are clogged with inertia or active hostility to action based on well founded data and analyses.  More and more this appears to have been the case in Flint, Michigan

Many of us came into this profession (including myself) because we saw it as a way to have a rewarding career while benefiting people and the environment. There are great examples of environmental engineering and science researchers taking their knowledge from the ivory tower into the public sphere:

Clearly as academics we (are at least perceived by some to) have a privileged role in society.  According to Vesilind, ethical systems derive from moral principles.  The three key moral frameworks involved in engineering, which are combined in what we do, are duty-based (deontological), utilitarian, and virtue-based.  Deontological principles, deriving from Kant, are essentially statements of the golden rule.  Utilitarian principles (the greatest good for the greatest number) underly much of engineering decision making, however we recognize that they must be constrained by the deontological principles. Virtue concepts refer to the traits inherent in persons.

A key source for engineering ethical concepts is the American Society of Civil Engineers, particularly Canon 1, which states:

“Engineers shall hold paramount [emphasis added]the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties. “

This canon, which should hold equally to the academic as the practicioner tells us that our first duty is to the public.

While some may be focused on developing scholarship in the realm of fundamental research, others in our field are interested in advancing and applying knowledge that maintains and improves public health and the environment. In an ideal world, university research would be immediately used by responsible government entities to effect change.  However all who have been in the field for some time can cite examples where such avenues have been imperfect. We should not shy from the necessity of applying the principle of Canon 1 when it becomes necessary.

As human beings if we witness a mugging on the street, we would perhaps first seek to call the police.  However if they don’t respond in time, we would be morally justified in intervening to stop the crime and perhaps detain the perpetrator.  

When environmental researchers have data to ascertain the likely presence of environmental damage, they should perhaps first seek to involve competent authorities or advocacy organizations.  But it could be perceived as in accordance with the duties inherent in Canon 1 if, when they find such authorities or organizations to be absent or perhaps even ineffectual, they make their findings known to the public directly.  This should not, in my opinion, be regarded as crossing an imaginary line.

Clearly going directly to the public may effect benefits against the environmental damage, but may accrue personal risks to the individuals going this route.  These risks should not include the opprobrium of their professional communities when the message is based on sound factual information and reasoning.  We do not do either our profession or the environment justice by saying that public messaging must wait for community consensus.  There is equal room in the big tent of environmental engineering and science researchers for those who wish to focus on fundamental issues, and for those who are interested in using the results of their knowledge advances to effect improvement to the environment and human health — and NEITHER should be denigrated.


A (Baby) Step Towards One Water

As even high school students know these days, the concept of the hydrologic cycle underlies all of what we do as environmental engineering practitioners and educators  There are several key engineered systems in the urban water cycle:

  • Water supply storage & conveyance
  • Water treatment plant
  • Finished water storage & distribution 
  • Sewer and stormwater collection system
  • Wastewater (and stormwater) treatment plants
  • Effluent discharge structure


Historically in the US, in most places, different agencies sprung up to manage the “water” and the “wastewater/stormwater” sides of this cycle.  It is obvious however that everything is connected to everything else per Barry Commoner’s First Law of Ecology. There are a few cities that have progressively realized that “water is water” and developed a single agency to manage both sides of the urban cycle.  I am glad to live in one such place, where Philadelphia Water is a unified agency handling drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater.  

At the professional level in the US, we have had multiple different organizations work in different subsets of the engineered water cycle.  The American Water Works Association (AWWA) historically has worked in the water supply, treatment and distribution sectors.  The Water Environment Federation (WEF) has worked on the sewerage collection, wastewater treatment and disposal sectors.  More recently with the growth of planned wastewater reuse (including for drinking water supply), the Water Reuse Association (WRA) has worked in this sector.

Internationally, there is a more rational picture.  In the early 2000’s, realizing that “water is water”, the International Water Association (IWA) was formed from predecessors separately organizing the wastewater and water supply & treatment sectors.

Each of the US organizations has begat parallel foundations to conduct research programs in its areas of interest: the Water Research Foundation (formerly the American Water Works Research Foundation, the Water Environment Research Foundation, and the Water Reuse Research Foundation.  Earlier this month, in a baby step towards recognizing “one water”, the latter two foundations merged to form the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation, cleverly maintaining the acronym WERF. They are to be congratulated for this, and should be inspired to go many steps further.

In reality it is high time for the organizations and foundations to take the big step.  As someone who works in the areas of disinfection and microbial risk assessment, it has long been obvious to me that there is no big qualitative difference between “dirty” water and “clean” water (some in the industry like to use the terms “clean” water and “cleaner” water).  We really need one single US association and one single US foundation.  It is time for the US Water Association and the US Water Research Foundation!  That would really align the structure of the profession with the structure of what we work on.  

Of course there also needs to be unification of the federal legislative structure governing the overall sector – and I may devote a later piece to this.

The Environmental Pyramid

A powerful meme in environmental engineering is the pyramid.  I first encountered this when I was working on hazardous waste in the 1980’s.  In that context, the pyramid has the more preferable alternatives (e.g. waste prevention) towards the base.  In recent years, the inverted pyramid has become more popular, and I think it more preferable, since it includes the more preferred alternatives on the top.  An example of this in the waste management context is:



This meme has broad utility outside the waste management hierarchy, and integrates well with the general movement towards sustainability.  Let me give two examples.

In water supply when additional sources are needed, this meme might include (going from the top of the inverted pyramid to the bottom):

  • Use reduction (conservation) (most preferred)
  • Internal recycling (e.g. recycling within a building or block — for example, use of cooling water for toilet flushing)
  • System wide reuse (and possible dual supply)
  • Abstraction of water from a new source and treatment

In energy supply, a possible set of hierarchies might be:

  • Demand reduction (conservation, incentives, …)
  • Internal recycling (heat recovery; energy recovery from on-side discarded materials)
  • System wide re-engineering of energy consumptive processes and operations
  • Abstraction of new sources (with ranking based on environmental/sustainability metrics)

Using such memes, in making decisions it should be incumbent on decision makers (and their consultants) to indicate why upper levels of the pyramid might not be feasible, might be too costly, might impose other environmental risks, etc., before proceeding to lower levels of the pyramid.

How do we train/retrain students, practitioners and the public towards this goal?