Scattered across Santa Clara County — home during our tenure at Stanford — are 23 parcels of land so polluted that they’ve been targeted for government intervention.

These “Superfund sites,”numbering more than 1,250 across the United States and its territories,are contaminated by heavy metals, organic solvents and petroleum residues. Some are at risk of contaminating the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people; others already have. Some sites are sopolluted that their very soil must be scraped away; others will not befit for human habitation for generations.

But the purpose of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-administered Superfund (or, as Congress originally passed the legislation, the “Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act” of 1980) is the cleanup and long-term rehabilitation of those sites that can be restored. And so EPA officials scurry about the country, evaluating the extent of contamination, implementing emergency controls when necessary and designing cleanups in concert with the affected state and community.

To see an extreme cleanup in action is to see humans operating as though they were on another planet — or perhaps in the bowels of the Fukushima reactor. All-white hazmat suits attempt to shield workers from acute toxicity or long-term carcinogenesis. As the site’s infrastructure,foundations, landscaping and topsoil are stripped away, so too is the identity of a place that was once untouched by man, then bustling with human activity and then finally rendered, through our activities,poisonous to our very existence. One wonders: how did this happen? Who allowed it to happen?

The answers to such questions are simultaneously simple and ambiguous. On the one hand, there’s usually one clear culprit: some negligent business dumping waste in the backyard, for example. But on the other hand, many of the listed sites predate Superfund (and other environmental) legislation. Certainly,it’s hard to imagine the polluters were oblivious to the consequences of their actions, though they might not have known the specific dangers of their waste stream (today, we still test only about one in 10 of the new chemicals we release into the environment).

It took environmental catastrophe to rouse environmentalism in the American public. So it’s little wonder that, absent regulation,businesspeople worried more about their bottom lines than a trickle of mercury here or a few gallons of paint thinner there. If the environment were affected, well, maybe no one would notice.

In reality, Superfund sites are among the easiest to link to their polluters: contamination is physically present in the place where it was dumped, or leaked, generally by the previous or current owner. And so in 70 percent of the cases, the EPA points its finger, and the guilty party picks up the cleanup tab.

But that leaves three out of 10 sites unfunded. For 15 years, we met this shortfall with specific taxes levied on the oil and gas industry, chemical manufacturers and some other corporations. When that tax expired in 1995, Congress continued to fund (a dwindling number of) the highest priority projectsby appropriating general funds — that is, by taking money out of America’s back pocket.

This seems intuitively unfair: why should we pay twice (with our health and with our checkbooks) for the environmental misconduct of big business? Yet attempts to reinstate the tax have repeatedly failed. This year, we’ll see if Washington State has better luck on a smaller scale, as its legislators debate a 1% tax on petroleum products, pesticides and fertilizers to pay for storm water cleanup. (Rainfall picks up traces of these pollutants when it flows over suburban lawns and busy streets.)

The typical business propaganda, of course, abounds: we’ll drive industry and jobs overseas! Increased prices will pass the tax on to the consumer!

The latter is almost certain to happen. And it should.Because both we and those faceless corporate giants are complicit in something called the Tragedy of the Commons: we use — nay, abuse —natural resources not directly linked to or owned by ourselves. Thus,when resources are destroyed or degraded, we experience no direct personal costs. Indeed, even if only one person (or one company or one country) does the damage, the burdens are diffused over a larger local(or global) population.

So, when we take a long shower without paying the cost of sustainable water, or when we drive our cars without paying a carbon emissions tax, or when we dump our sewage into the ocean to mix with everyone else’s, we’re chipping away at our global savings without putting anything away for the future.

That’s not to claim that we can buy our way out of, say, climate change —especially since we don’t know its true cost. And even if we could pay for infinite sea walls, relocation and air conditioning, all the money in the world couldn’t bury more oil in the ground to fuel these projects. But if we start paying the real cost of the environmental damage we do — or at least some (likely underestimated) approximation of it — we’ll probably start doing less damage. And maybe, for one beautiful year, we’ll clean Superfund sites faster than we list them.