Earth Day at 50: Progress, Not Politics, Cleaned Up America
By Steve Milloy
Environmental activists decreed in 1970 that April 22 was to be commemorated as Earth Day. Fifty years later, if you listen to these activists, especially as they are fog-horned by the mainstream media, you might get the impression that our environment is in more jeopardy than ever. Is this true?
Let’s stipulate that post-World War II America was much dirtier than 2020 America. Industrial cities were beset with smog. Pollution in rivers caught fire. Waste dumps weren’t always managed well. Not much thought was given to use and exposure to chemicals like pesticides. Litter was commonplace.
All that said, with the exception of three days in October 1948, when the weather trapped acrid factory emissions in the valley town of Donora, Pa., resulting in the deaths of 20 people, the environment was not an actual public health problem. Still the Donora tragedy propelled states and then the federal government to take action on the environment. Awareness of the value of environmental protection and the regulation of emissions were all underway by the time of the first Earth Day.
Over the decades we have made tremendous progress. Here are some examples to consider:
- Air pollution has declined dramatically.There is no chance of another Donora-like incident.
- Except for rare accidents like what occurred in Flint, Mich., drinking water is clean and safe.
- Except for stubborn surface water problems caused by runoff (as seen in the Gulf Mexico and Chesapeake Bay) surface water quality has dramatically improved. Any industrial discharges to surface water have been cleaner than the surface water itself for decades.
- There are no more uncontrolled toxic waste sites that threaten anyone’s health.
- Pesticides are thoroughly tested for safetybefore use and use is strictly regulated.
How did all this progress happen? Environmentalists would like to take all the credit. But reality is more complex.
As our society became wealthier, we could afford the luxury of paying more attention to our environment. That same wealth has made it possible to afford expensive laws and regulations and to afford scientific knowledge and technology development. The key, though, was and remains wealth – a reality backed up by closer examination of the environments of poorer nations around the world.
Air quality, for example, is awful in places like China and India not because they don’t know what to do or don’t care, they just can’t afford to do much about it at this point in time.
Despite all this progress, environmentalists used the 50th Earth Day to sound the alarm about climate change. We have been told that climate change is literally the end of the planet.
Climate is a variegated subject, but suffice to say, for present purposes, that since pre-industrial times, there has been approximately 1.1 degree Celsius of warming and almost 50% more CO2 in the atmosphere. Despite the alarm, no one knows what the future holds. The assumption of the alarmists is that emissions are bad, but history tells a different story.
Since man started emitting vast quantities of greenhouse gases, more people are living longer and at a higher standard of living. Life expectancy is up from approximately 40 years (1850) to approximately 79 (2019). U.S. per capita GDP is up from approximately $2,825 in 1850 to approximately $53,000 in 2016 (2011 dollars).
The Earth is greener today than it was 40 years ago when we started taking satellite photos of the planet, according to NASA.
What is the future of the environment? No one knows for sure, but if the past is any hint of the future, more wealth, strong property rights, better education and new technologies will enable us to keep our environment clean.
We could also use less hysteria, which just causes money to be wasted versus being spent more productively. Early hysteria about toxic wastes site (such as Love Canal in upstate New York) resulted in $50 billion being wasted litigating Superfund cleanups. A lot of sites could have been cleaned up with that money. Instead, it went to lawyers. More generally, green groups have often taken extreme positions to advocate for overregulation that has impeded environmental protection and wasted time and money.
Radicals often attack capitalism with the line, “You didn’t build that.” On Earth Day, that should be retorted with: “You didn’t clean that up.” Environmental protection has been a group effort enabled by our wealth, culture and system of government.