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Local Scale Levels


Local Scale Levels

The earliest environmental problems caused by people were local in nature.  Many of today’s environmental problems are also local, where “local” may refer to a municipal jurisdiction, a neighborhood or even a specific property, such as a dump or industrial site. Air, water and soil pollution are all examples of local environmental problems. Reduced habitat caused by urbanization or industrial activities, perhaps even leading to extinction of endemic species, are other examples, as are local deforestation, soil erosion or loss of soil fertility due to industrial agriculture.


Many local environmental problems may create a nuisance, but this does not mean they are a sustainable scale problem.  A local environmental problem becomes a sustainable scale problem if:


  1. a local nonrenewable resource is being used
  2. a local renewable resource or sink is being used faster than it can be renewed.

In either case (see Scale Categories), sustainable scale can be exceeded at the local level: a local mine’s ore may become depleted; a forest may be clear cut; a river may receive more effluent than it can purify; or a ground site may receive more emissions or toxic materials than it can flush out or breakdown.


While many local scale problems can be serious and endure for long periods, ecosystem resilience can often provide remedies.  Sinks for air, soil or water emissions can be renewed by cutting or eliminating the emissions in some cases.  Nonrenewable resources may be imported from another jurisdiction, as can renewable resources.  Trade with other regions can help a local area that has exceeded sustainable scale for some source or sink.  Wood can be imported if the local forest is lost.  Food can be imported if the local water supply or soil fertility no longer supports local agriculture.  Waste, toxic or otherwise, can be exported. Even the industrial operations that produce the waste can be exported. Among the other benefits trade may bring, one of them is to restore resource and sink flows that may have been degraded by unsustainable local practices.


Local Examples

There are also cases where sustainable scale has been exceeded locally. The Chernobyl nuclear reactor site is such an example. There are many other local sites around the world where the volume and or toxicity of emissions has been so great that they either have to be physically removed (generally at great financial costs), or the contaminated site has to be quarantined and taken out of active use (also an expensive proposition), and people have to be moved (as with the Love Canal in New York State, or the Sydney Tar Ponds in Nova Scotia). There are many such contaminated sites in most industrial countries, and the projected cost of cleaning them up is in the billions of dollars.


Local environmental problems are as old as man.  In preagricultural times, if a local site was hunted or fished out the clan could move to another site with more resources.  There are, however, a number of differences between these earliest local environmental problems and those of today.  In the past, the nomadic lifestyle meant moving on to another site was “normal.”  Today, moving entire communities and abandoning a built-up infrastructure is virtually unheard of. There are also fewer uninhabited desirable sites to move to. Relying on trade to move resources or biocapacity or even waste is more likely than moving people.


In the past, human population groups were relatively small and the damage they could do to ecosystems, while considerable, was still small compared to the degradation caused by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people in a single city today.  In the past, the wastes created were largely organic and while they might be noxious they would eventually decompose without doing permanent damage.  Today, not only has the volume of our wastes increased dramatically, but also its toxicity (see Toxic Substances). Some highly toxic wastes such as plutonium will remain dangerous for thousands of years.

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