The Funnel, The Wall, and The Toxic Substances Control Act

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the funnel vs. the cylinder.  It would be hard to do a shorter version than what I put in that post, but I’ll give it a shot.

Funnel v. Cylinder “Class Notes”


  • Ecological barriers = walls.
  • We think we’re in a cylinder.
  • Trying to avoid hitting the walls, invent our way into a wider cylinder.
  • Actually in a funnel.  Forces acting to push the walls inward = population growth, market demand, positive feedback loops, resource availability, etc.

So if we accept that we are in a funnel and not a cylinder, the rational response changes.  In a cylinder, it might be rational to edge away from the walls, try to nudge them outwards, or even try to decrease our speed so that we don’t hit the walls quite as hard.  In the funnel, none of these responses make sense.  Because ecological systems are complex, we don’t know exactly how quickly the walls of the funnel are sloping inward.  Therefore, the only rational response in the funnel (or the only one I see – any others?) is to move as quickly as possible towards the center.

In other words, if you’re running from an avalanche, you don’t try to calculate the exact speed of movement that will put you just out of reach of the debris.  You just haul ass and hope you make it.

TSCA in the Funnel

Congress is currently in the process of reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Take a look around you.  From the computer on which you’re reading this post to the glaze on your coffee mug to the clothes that you’re wearing, you are probably surrounded by chemicals.  It may not be particularly reassuring that TSCA has been around in its present form since 1976.  A lot has changed since 1976.  (But My Little Ponies are back.  And composed of chemicals.)

(Random Sidenote:  The TSCA is sometimes referred to as “TOSCA.”  Once upon a time, I wanted to go to Julliard. Who am I kidding?  I still want to go to Julliard.  But anyways, I took a lot of voice lessons and had season tickets to the opera.  Tosca is still one of my favorite operas, which has weirdly translated over into a fond affection for the Toxic Substances Control Act, or at least its name.  I’m glad Congress is taking a look at reforming TSCA – it needs it – but I’ll miss the name.)

I’m sensitive to many chemicals.  By sensitive, I mean I burst into hives and want to rip the skin from my body.  No fun.  Why am I telling you about my hives?  Because it’s a constant reminder that in addition to the obvious environmental ramifications, there are human health issues at stake with TSCA as well.  Human health issues and environmental issues are similar in that we often don’t identify them until they are widespread.  And until it’s too late to fix them.  We find ourselves in a continual game of catch-up, with our health and our planet at stake.

I can’t help but wonder how TSCA and the TSCA reform efforts would look different if our political leaders were operating within a funnel paradigm rather than a cylinder.  What would it look like if they designed a bill to move us rapidly towards the mouth of the funnel rather than playing chicken with the walls of the cylinder?

Photo borrowed from The Natural Step framework.

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