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Trying to Recapture That Old Earth Day Magic

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The contrast between PBS’s celebration of the huge public events of the first Earth Day in 1970 with the sleepy affair it is today tells you what’s wrong with today’s environmentalism: it is stuck in the past.

For the last 15 years, Earth Day has been the occasion for me to play the contrarian through the annual publication of the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, which offered official government data documenting the substantial improvement in environmental conditions in the United States. (You can find previous editions archived here.) Even as recently as the mid-1990s, there was surprisingly little effort in the United States to develop environmental indicators, and not much effort to track year-on-year trends and report on conditions. This has changed for the better, and so this year I decided to break the string and kill off the Index for good. Not to worry; it is going to be replaced by something better and more relevant to the environmental challenges of the 21st century. More about that in a moment.

There were two inspirations for the first edition of the Index published way back in 1994. First, I noticed that opinion polls showed that a large majority of Americans—as many as 75 percent in some polls—thought environmental quality in the United States was getting worse, and would continue to get worse in the future. I knew that the data showed this was the opposite of reality. Most areas of concern—most, not all—had dramatically improved since the first Earth Day, as the government’s own data sets showed. But neither the media nor environmental activist groups ever pointed out this data. Someone needed to.

I noticed that opinion polls showed that a large majority of Americans thought environmental quality in the United States was getting worse; data showed this was the opposite of reality.

Second, I recalled the great media success former Education Secretary William Bennett enjoyed with his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators in 1993. It was a simple publication, about 40 pages long, with time-series charts and graphs displaying dismaying trends in teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, school test scores, crimes rates, welfare dependency, and so forth. It was perfect fuel for pessimism about the nation and its future. (Ironically, many of these adverse cultural trends began to improve right about that very moment.) I knew that the same method of data presentation—simple time-series graphs of trends in air and water pollution, toxic waste, soil erosion, and so forth—would show improvement, and make the case for environmental optimism. I’ve kidded Bill Bennett that his Index was a larger media sensation than my Index for the simple reason that his was about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, while mine was about polychlorinated biphenyls. But over the years my little Index and similar efforts have enjoyed more than its share of media attention, such that even the major media began reporting that environmental conditions have improved.

On the 30th anniversary of Earth Day in 2000, USA Today editorialized: “Hidden Environmental Gains: Polls Find Misplaced Gloom. Air, Water Improve. New Tools Emerge.” U.S. News and World Report carried the feature, “It’s a Breath of Fresh Air: Thirty Years after Earth Day, America Is Getting Its Environmental Act Together.” There also began to be coverage of improvements in air quality, especially for southern California, which has always been the smog capital of the United States. The San Diego Union Tribune carried a front-page story with the headline, “We Can Breathe Easy: Air Pollution Is Down.” The Los Angeles Daily News offered the headline, “Smog’s Dirty Grasp Easing.” Newspapers elsewhere in the country took note of what has been happening in California, such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “L.A. Area makes Major Headway in Its Battle against Pollution.” Nor is recognition of the turnabout in environmental trends limited to just the United States. The Observer newspaper of London carried the headline: “Mexico City Cleans Up Its Act: The War on Pollution.”

Over the years my little Index and similar efforts have enjoyed more than its share of media attention, such that even the major media began reporting that environmental conditions have improved.

And now President Obama has made it official, saying in a White House video marking the 40th anniversary of Earth Day that “we’ve made remarkable progress. Today, our air and water are cleaner, pollution has been greatly reduced, and Americans everywhere are living in a healthier environment . . . In Cleveland, the Cuyahoga River is cleaner than it’s been in 100 years.” Future progress, he added, wouldn’t come from Washington, but from the people themselves acting through local initiatives.

While President Obama notices what’s happening, apparently the folks over at government-run TV (PBS) didn’t get the memo, offering up this week a two-hour American Experience Earth Day documentary on “the inspiring story of the modern environmental movement.” Not much inspiration here; to the contrary, the film is so drearily conventional that it’s about as inspiring as a bad tribute cover band trying to recreate Beatlemania in an Elko, Nevada ballroom. The PBS website even posts the trailer to “Soylent Green,” the 1973 eco-horror flick whose DVD edition helpfully includes a bonus feature extra explaining Thomas Malthus’s theory of how population growth would outstrip resources—proving once again that Hollywood is in fact a lagging indicator of social thought.

The more important set of questions going forward concern how to plug large data gaps so we can assess environmental conditions more accurately.

But you will get a tour of the environmental movement’s greatest hits of the 1960s and 1970s, including Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, Paul Ehrlich, Stewart Udall, Dennis Meadows, Pete McCloskey, and other fossils from the Smithsonian. An interview with the one person who would have relieved this dirge, Norman Borlaug, ended up on the cutting room floor, though a transcript is posted on the PBS website. Instead we are treated to a reprise of Rachel Carson’s greatness, with Udall proclaiming: “Rachel Carson’s method of research was sound and her findings and conclusions were generally correct. President Kennedy backed Rachel Carson.” A balanced treatment of Rachel Carson’s work might have included the judgment of New York Times’ editorial writer Tina Rosenberg’s 2004 Times Magazine article in which she delivers the harsh conclusion that “DDT killed bald eagles because of its persistence in the environment. Silent Spring is now killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind.”

The contrast between PBS’s backwards-looking celebration of the huge public events of the first Earth Day in 1970 with the sleepy affair it has become today tells all you need to know about what’s wrong with today’s environmentalism: it is stuck in the past. Even former Vice President Al Gore would have seemed a fresh face in this treatment. Above all, there is not a single fact or data set offered to suggest what has occurred since the first Earth Day. Hunter Lovins offers the perfect coda to the inability of environmentalism to change its mind in the face of new circumstances: “There were various efforts to discredit Limits to Growth and to discredit Paul Ehrlich’s work, and indeed much of what they said would come to pass has not come to pass. Well, does that mean they’re wrong? No, what it means is all we’ve done is push off these challenge that they very rightly identified.”

Future progress, President Obama added, wouldn’t come from Washington, but from the people themselves acting through local initiatives.

At some point, reporting the data on environmental progress in the United States and other prosperous nations encounters the law of diminishing returns, and although public ignorance and media misperception of environmental trends persists, I don’t want to become an inverted parody of the very thing that hampers environmentalists—saying the same thing over and over again until I sound like a broken record. In addition, in the 15 years since I started tracking environmental trends, a number of worthy public- and private-sector efforts have come along. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), after a difficult, multi-year interagency process, finally produced a comprehensive set of 85 environmental indicators, most of them reported on the national and regional levels. The EPA’s 2008 Report on the Environment is a highly valuable product, and should be regarded as the pre-eminent and most authoritative resource for tracking and evaluating environmental conditions in the United States. At 366 pages, it is not easily approachable or user-friendly, though there is a good 40-page summary available that is close in scope to what I have done in the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators for the past decade. (Full disclosure: I participated in workshops and peer reviews that went into developing the EPA’s report.) The second major effort of note comes from the private sector: the State of the Nation’s Ecosystems 2008 report from the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment. As the title suggests, the Heinz Center takes a more confined approach than the EPA’s report, focusing mainly on ecosystems, even though it employs a larger number of indicators (108 in all). Both the EPA and the Heinz Center can be expected to produce updates of their reports going forward.

Not a single American or European city ranks among the World Bank’s top 50 most polluted cities in the world. But data on environmental conditions in the developing world is still very patchy and inconsistent.

The old fossils from the first Earth Day won’t be around much longer; (indeed, Udall passed away between the time the PBS film was made and its broadcast this week), and the more important set of questions going forward concern how to plug large data gaps so we can assess environmental conditions more accurately, how do we learn from our successes and failures of the last generation, and how do we apply the lessons of success to the stubborn problems, such as surface water quality, that have shown less progress. Moreover, one thing that should be clear from the experience of the last 40 years is that the most significant environmental problems are in the developing world, and that economic growth is the key—not the enemy—of environmental improvement. For example, not a single American or European city ranks among the World Bank’s top 50 most polluted cities in the world. But data on environmental conditions in the developing world is still very patchy and inconsistent. Finally, even where there are very high-quality data, such as with air pollution in the United States, there remain many controversies about how the data and trends should be interpreted. These difficulties compound when multiple layers of environmental conditions are considered, such as when we try to evaluate ecosystems at any scale or the linkages between environmental factors. Scientists and other academic specialists are pursuing ever more intricate investigations of environmental conditions, but the more detailed the investigation, the less accessible to the general public are the results, and the less able we are to draw generalized conclusions. Even where adequate data exist, matching up indicators with policy tools for many environmental conditions is still not a simple matter and deserves much more work.

In the fashion of Hollywood remakes of classic films (I guess we can call “Star Trek” a classic), later this year I’ll be “rebooting” my old Index in a very different format—the Almanac of Environmental Trends. There will be one last print version for desk reference purposes, but then the whole effort will go entirely online, with a dedicated website offering continuous updates along with a larger number of national and global data sets, interpretative materials, and—best of all—a smart-phone app so you can have the data at your fingertips. Next time you are at a cocktail party and someone makes an assertion about the ozone layer, or forests, or other hot-button issues, you will be able to check the data on the spot. In our interactive age, this format promises to be much more useful than a once-a-year look at a few highlights. Or think of it this way: it will allow anyone to ruin an environmentalist’s day every day instead of just Earth Day.

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Hayward recently detailed temperature problems with climate change in “Unsettling the Settled Science,” and he and Kenneth Green dismantled the old environmental solutions in “Back to the 1970s: Let’s Get Small!” He outlined solutions to “The Energy Policy Morass” and said many climate change enthusiasts are “In Denial.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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