Environmental Reality

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A tidbit from a Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, in which Gregg Easterbrook previewed his forthcoming book The Progress Paradox.

Despite the panic-stricken tone of environmental commentary and politics, all environmental trends in the U.S. except for greenhouse-gas accumulation are favorable.

Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie, the Hudson River and other important water bodies have gone from imperiled to mainly clean.  Boston Harbor, whose filth was ridiculed in a commercial that was pivotal to the 1988 Presidential election, now has water so clear that revelers do ceremonial New Year's Day dips.  The Chicago River, described in the Upton Sinclair Classic The Jungle as so loaded with filth that chickens actually were seen walking across it, and as recently as the 1970s still badly polluted, today hosts art festivals, boat tours, and dinner cruises.

Since 1970, smog has declined by a third, even as the number of cars has doubled.  Acid rain has fallen 65 percent, though the United States now burns twice as much coal.  Airborne soot is down substantially.  Airborne lead is down 98 percent.  Emissions of CFCs have essentially ended.

During the 2000 Presidential campaign, much was made of Houston taking over from Los Angeles as the nation's "smog capital."  Commentators did not add that this happened during a period when Houston smog diminished it's just that L.A. pollution declined even faster, with Los Angeles prevailing in a race of positives.  Twenty years ago, Los Angeles averaged 50 "stage one" ozone alerts per year; the city has not had one for the last four years running.  This ability to make fantastic strides against pollution even during a period when the regional population was shooting up is a remarkable success story.

Other environmental measures are also positive.  Toxic emissions by industry declined 48 percent in the last 15 years.  And that's not because our pollution was shipped offshore petrochemical manufacturers, the main industrial source of toxic emissions, actually increased domestic production during the period.

More than half of all Superfund toxic waste sites are cleaned up, and none imperil public health.  Some Superfund sites are now sufficiently harmless to have been declared nature preserves.  Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside Denver, where nerve gas was once made, has been a National Wildlife Preserve for 10 years.  Eagle and other biologically delicate species thrive there.

Soil losses to agricultural runoff are declining.  American water consumption is declining, even as the population expands in the arid Southwest.  The wooded acreage of the United States has been expanding.  Appalachian forests, expected to be wiped out by acid rain, instead are the healthiest they have been since before the industrial era.

Since the Endangered Species Act reached full implementation in the late 1970s, at most one U.S. animal species has fallen extinct, rather than the thousands predicted, while once-imperiled creatures such as the bald eagle, gray whale, brown pelican, and peregrine falcon have recovered and been "delisted."  Writing in 1854, Thoreau lamented that deer were extinct and he would never see one.  Now these ungulates wander across suburban lawns from Atlanta to Maine, the North American deer population being greater than when Europeans arrived.

In recent years it has become common to hear of a cancer epidemic, an endocrine-disruptor epidemic, the "poisoning of America," and other dire health circumstances.  If we're all being poisoned, our bodies have a strange way of showing it by living longer and longer.  Heart disease and stroke have been declining for decades.  U.S. heart disease mortality is now 60 percent lower than in 1950; stroke deaths are down by 70 percent in the same period; hypertension is down.

Cancer stopped rising around 1993 and has since fallen slightly, despite continued aging of the population.  When alarmists say there is "more cancer than ever before," they mean more total cases that is, not adjusting for an ever-larger and older population.  by this kind of logic there is also now "more baldness than ever before," simply because more people are alive, and living longer.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average American lifespan was 46 years; now it is 77 years.  A 1928 government study forecast that the "natural" lifespan would ultimately rise to the unbelievable level of 65 years.  Lawmakers assumed Social Security would be economical because most people would die without ever receiving a benefit check.  Instead, today Americans average an extra decade of life beyond what experts thought would be the biological maximum.

Though polls show a majority of the population believes pollution is growing worse, the reality is quite different.

 

Copyright 2010 Tim Stouse
Last modified: December 10, 2010
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