Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
No, the world isn’t coming to an end this week, but you may be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
For this week, the American public is experiencing an environmental programming barrage on TV.
It includes a CBS two- parter, The Fire Next Time, HBO’s Earth and the American Dream, and Nickleodeon’s Plan it for the Planet, aimed at children, which makes the country and the planet look like a real goner unless drastic action is taken.
The occasion is the 23rd anniversary of Earth Day. But if it’s being celebrated, it’s more like an Irish wake than a party.
Yet some environmentalist critics are saying that in many respects this country has become a much cleaner and healthier place in which to live since the original Earth Day.
"The trendlines in almost every single category have been positive, yet environmentalists consistently ignore them," said Kent Jeffreys of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The Fire Next Time, set in the near future, depicts a nation ravaged by dying forests, dried-up rivers and shrinking beaches. There is also an epidemic of skin cancer caused by a depleted ozone layer.
HBO’s Earth and the American Dream traces "the white man’s pursuit of the American dream," which also ends in gross environmental degradation and no hope in sight for humanity.
Stephen Schneider, an atmospheric scientist who served as a consultant to The Fire Next Time, is one of the foremost advocates of the theory that carbon dioxide and other man-made emissions are slowly warming up the atmosphere.
Discover magazine, in its October 1989 issue, quoted Schneider as saying, "To get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination . . . we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. . . . Each of us have to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.’"
A summary of trends would appear to indicate that The Fire Next Time leaned more toward effectiveness at the expense of honesty.
EPA estimates of air emissions of the six most common air pollutants
Acid rain comes from sulfur oxides, emissions of which peaked in 1970, and nitrogen oxides, which peaked in 1978 but have declined only slightly since then.
A 1991 study by the federal National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program also found that concerns over acid rain, while partly justified, were greatly overstated.
Use of synthetic pesticides, a great worry to many environmentalists, peaked in 1981 and has stablized at a lower level. Soil erosion continues but at much reduced rates. Likewise, wetlands destruction has been enormously slowed.
In 1970, 1.6 million acres of new trees were planted in U.S. forests. By 1990, that was up to 2.86 million.
A little over a decade ago, the common wisdom was that gasoline prices would go through the roof because we were running out of oil.
Every year for the past several decades we’ve heard we’re running out of oil. Yet known petroleum reserves at now at an all-time high.
Said environmentalist Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute in 1980: "Any American contemplating the purchase of a new car (should) assume that gas will cost $ 2 per gallon within a few years and $ 3 per gallon during the vehicle’s lifetime."
Today, despite recent tax increases, gasoline costs less after inflation than it did in the 1970s. Estimated oil reserves are now three times higher than in 1970.
Vice President Al Gore and many other environmentalists rank population growth as the top environmental problem.
But environmental improvements since 1970 occurred despite an almost 25% increase in population. While Paul Ehrlich’s frightening 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb predicted a U.S. famine by now, fully 10% of U.S. cropland has been pulled out of use because of a surplus of grain.
Some observers, such as University of Maryland economist Julian Simon, say the single best indicator of environmental quality is life expectancy. U.S. life expectancy at birth was about 71 years in 1970; today it is almost 76.
Since 1970, two new problems have been placed on center stage, depletion of the ozone layer and global warming. These are the key issues in Gore’s best-seller, Earth in the Balance.
Some critics like the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Jeffreys, however, are skeptical.
"We know the science now," he said. "We know that dioxin doesn’t kill people, that pesticide residues on the food supply don’t hurt anybody, that acid rain doesn’t destroy forests or streams of the East. That’s why they move on to new issues, global warming and the ozone hole, and things (that even environmentalists don’t claim will harm us until) beyond 2000."
"The two major predictions of global warming advocates are not being sustained by the data," said Ron Bailey, author of the book Eco-Scam.
One prediction is that warming would start first and grow fastest at the poles. Yet a major study of satellite data that appeared recently in Nature magazine actually showed a slight cooling trend above the Arctic.
The second forecast is that "we should be experiencing about a three- tenths degree of centigrade increase every decade (globally), and that just hasn’t happened," said Bailey. Satellite data has found a slight warming trend, but it’s so small that some wonder if it is a trend at all.
At any rate, U.S. production of carbon dioxide, the chief gas blamed for potential warming, appears to be stabilizing, although worldwide it continues to increase.
As to ozone-layer depletion, even Michael Oppenheimer, an atmospheric scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, has stated, "The current and projected levels of ozone depletion do not appear to represent a catastrophe."
Environmentalists attribute this to their successful demand for a global ban on ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. This is expected to cause CFCs to top out by the end of the decade.
Bailey says the problem was always exaggerated, but either way, ozone depletion as a problem is fading.
Nevertheless, some environmental problems have proved more intractable.
Oil spills off U.S. coasts haven’t declined over the last few decades. And tropical rain forest depletion has increased from less than 10 million hectares per year in the late 1970s to almost 17 million per year in the 1980s, according to the United Nations.
Said Roger Sedjo, an analyst at Resources for the Future in Washington: "I think you can make the case that the existing rate is undesirable."
Good News, Bad News
On the other hand, Sedjo points out that forests in temperate areas such as Europe have grown dramatically over the last few decades.
As for the issue of species loss, an upcoming Competitive Enterprise Institute report notes, the good news is that there is no scientific evidence to support claims of 10,000 extinctions every year. The bad news is that there is little hard scientific evidence on the issue.
Despite great gains in air quality, "The picture in water quality hasn’t changed much since 1972," other than in "mediagenic" bodies of water, such as Lake Erie and the Potomac, according to Jerry Taylor, environmental analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington.
On the other hand, between 1972 and 1988, the number of people served by sewage treatment plants with secondary treatment or better increased 69%, from 85 million to 144 million.
Why are things getting better?
Some trends, such as the reduction in air emissions, began around 1970 and appear strongly correlated with environmental awareness. Specifically, 1970 was the year of the Clean Air Act, which prompted new automobile technology such as catalytic converters.
But other trends go back much further.
Particulate emissions, much of them from wood and coal burning, have declined since data was first collected in 1940.
And while it’s true that reforestation increased 79% from 1970 to 1990, from 1950 to 1970 it increased 150%.
The removal of the gray whale from the endangered species list is regarded
as the one true success of the controversial Endangered Species Act. Yet the government first listed the whale in 1976, while its numbers have been increasing since the turn of the century, when petroleum became cheaper than whale oil.
The explanation for much of the improvement both before and after regulation is that "wealth leads to health," according to Richard Stroup, an economist at the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont.
"It’s a combination of the increased efficiency that comes with technological advancement, along with a willingness to pay for environmental quality," he said. In poor countries, people are too busy trying to stay alive to worry about the environment, he said.
Cato’s Taylor adds that the nation’s move toward a service-oriented economy, which is also the result of a country gaining in wealth, may also be a factor.
Ironically, say Stroup and some other economists, environmental regulations are steadily adding a greater burden to the economic machine that is generating a cleaner environment.
Soaring ’Green’ Costs
According to the EPA, the nation spent $ 26.5 billion to comply with federal environmental regulations in 1972 (in 1986 dollars) and will probably spend about $ 123.7 billion in 1993. As a percentage of gross national product, that is an increase from 0.88% to 2.49%, with a projected rise to 2.83% by the turn of the century, assuming no new regulations are passed.
One study by Harvard University and Resources for the Future found that total costs of clean water and clean air regulations lowered real 1990 GNP by 5.8% from it otherwise would have been.
By 1990, the U.S. already was spending far more of its gross domestic product on compliance with environmental regulations than any other nation. And that was the year Congress passed the new Clean Air Act, expected to be the most costly set of U.S. environmental regulations.
Murray Weidenbaum, director of the Center for the Study of American Business in St. Louis, says that some environmental regulations have paid off, but they have been extremely inefficient.
One often-cited program is the Superfund toxic waste clean-up program. According to the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, Superfund could cost half a trillion dollars over the next several decades, even though the health benefits are dubious.
"We’re spending over $ 100 billion on compliance with federal regulations," he said. "But we could be spending a lot less and getting the same result or spending as much and getting a much better result or simply be splitting the difference."