Environmental Doomsday: Bad news good, good news bad

Gregg Easterbrook
Gregg Easterbrook Contributing Editor, The Atlantic, Visiting Fellow (2000-08), Brookings Institution, Author, Arrow of History (forthcoming, 2018)

March 1, 2002

The iron law of contemporary environmental understanding in the United States is: Bad News Good, Good News Bad. Though by almost every measure the Western environment at least has been getting better for decades, voters, thinkers, and pundits have been programmed to believe the environment is getting worse. Thus conditioned, Americans greet environmental bad news with a welcoming sigh as confirming the expected, while regarding environmental good news as some kind of deception. Bad News Good, Good News Bad.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, much was made of Houston becoming the “smog capital of America.” But Houston’s overall air quality was improving at the time. Houston became the nation’s smog capital only because Los Angeles’s air improved even faster, passing Houston in a race of positives. Perhaps the commentators who spoke as though Houston’s air were getting worse did not understand the issue. More likely they did not want to understand-for cleaner air would violate the rule of Good News Bad.

Environmental lobbyists intent on raising money have a stake in spinning everything in alarming terms. (Everyone is aware that corporate lobbyists have financial stakes in the positions they advocate. Why the same isn’t understood about environmental lobbyists numbers among the small mysteries of our moment.) And when environmental lobbyists depict all news as bad, most of the media reflexively echoes this line.

Arguably the greatest postwar achievement of the U.S. government and of the policy community is ever-cleaner air and water, accomplished amidst population and economic growth. The environmental record to date shows that government programs can make the nation better and safer without harming prosperity, that industry can be regulated in ways that benefit everyone, that public policy can work. Past environmental successes give reason to hope that future initiatives, such as greenhouse gas controls, will succeed too.

Yet the false perception of environmental decline—a package of views I call “instant doomsday”—is promoted assiduously by the very environmental activists and political liberals who would likely receive much of the credit for these accomplishments were they properly recognized. To boot, voters would be shown a reason to believe that government really can accomplish things. Wouldn’t that be welcome all around? Ah, but it would violate the law of Bad News Good, Good News Bad.

Cleaner Air

Most—not all—environmental indicators are now positive, at least in the United States and other Western nations.

Air pollution has declined at a pace that would be a national cause for celebration, were it not for Good News Bad thinking. (Most of the following statistics are for 1976-97. Subsequent data, due from the Environmental Protection Agency soon, are expected to show more decline in all categories.) Since 1976, the aggregate U.S. level of urban ozone, the main component of smog, has declined 31 percent. Airborne levels of sulfur dioxide, the main component of acid rain, have dropped 67 percent. Nitrogen oxide, the secondary cause of urban smog and of acid rain, has fallen 38 percent. Fine soot (“particulates”), which causes respiratory disease, has declined 26 percent. Airborne lead, considered the most dangerous air pollutant when the EPA was founded in 1970, has declined 97 percent. The EPA’s “Pollutant Standards Index,” which measures days when air quality is unhealthful, has fallen 66 percent since 1988 in major cities.

As analyst Steven Haywood of the Pacific Research Institute has pointed out, during 1976-97, while the United States was cleaning up its air, its population rose more than 25 percent, its gross domestic product more than doubled, and its vehicle-miles traveled grew about 125 percent—all developments that might have been expected to worsen air pollution. What kept that from happening was a web of ever-stricter anti-emission regulations, ever-better technology (today’s new cars emit less than 1 percent as much pollution, per mile traveled, as 1970 cars), and smart use of market forces. For example, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments allowed electric-power utilities to trade acid-rain permits to help them meet tougher standards. As a result, acid-rain emissions fell 50 percent during the 1990s, even as more coal, the primary source of acid-rain chemicals, was being burned.

Especially spectacular has been the improvement of Los Angeles air. The summer of 2001 was its cleanest on record. Los Angeles county has not had a “stage one” ozone alert in two years; during the 1980s, it averaged 70 stage-one warnings annually. In 2001, Los Angeles violated the federal ozone standard 36 times; during the 1980s, it averaged 165 violations a year. L.A. county officials had to issue 18 ozone “health advisories” in 2001; during the 1980s, the average was 130 a year. (And L.A. smog figures for the 1960s and 1970s were worse.) Despite the popular impression of L.A. air getting ever worse, Los Angeles smog has been declining on a pretty much linear basis since the 1960s.

Denver, New York City, and other major urban areas have drastically reduced the incidence of carbon monoxide—sometimes called winter smog—in the past decade amidst a welter of claims by environmental activists that “more and more cities are violating air standards.” As the EPA makes its air quality standards progressively more stringent, cities may violate standards even as pollution levels go down.

Related Progress

Most other environmental indicators are similarly favorable. In 1970, only one-third of American lakes and rivers were safe for fishing and swimming—the principal water-purity standard of the Clean Water Act. Today the proportion is about two-thirds, and rising. Toxic emissions from U.S. industry have declined 42 percent since 1988 and not because production fled offshore—domestic output of the petrochemical industry, the main source of toxic emissions, grew during the period. During the past two decades municipal wastewater treatment has become universal, while the ocean dumping of sewage sludge has been banned. Boston Harbor, a decades-old source of dirty-water jokes, is on such a clean binge—thanks to the world’s most advanced municipal wastewater treatment plant—that the harbor is sparkling again already and will be safe to fish and swim in soon. Land disposal of untreated hazardous wastes has been banned, and no Superfund sites today imperil public health. Energy consumption has become more efficient in almost every category with the annoying exception of the sport utility vehicle. A long-term trend of “decarbonization” characterizes energy use in the United States, the European Union, and affluent Asian nations. All these societies are burning steadily less fossil fuel per unit of energy produced.

Other improvements abound. The forested portion of the United States is increasing, not shrinking. Appalachian forests, once expected to be wiped out by acid rain, are the healthiest they have been since before the industry era, with browsing species such as deer thriving. Farm erosion and runoff are both trending down, even as agricultural production keeps rising. The American bald eagle, gray whale, and peregrine falcon have been “delisted” from the Endangered Species Act, while the oft-predicted wave of extinctions of U.S. plants and animals has yet to materialize. All these gains have coincided with unprecedented economic growth and improved living standards—proof that environmental protection and prosperity are wholly compatible. Gross pollution was necessary for economic growth a century ago; now it is not, though power plants continue to hum and factories to churn out goods.

Lingering Problem Areas

Two environmental trends in the West remain worrisome—habitat loss and greenhouse gas emissions.

Prosperity expands to fill the space available for construction. Though the built-up area of the United States is still much smaller than most people would guess—about 6 percent of U.S. land—the developed “footprint” of the country continues to expand and must expand another 50 percent or so to accommodate the 50 percent population increase that the Census Bureau projects before the American populace stabilizes around mid-century. This means more sprawl. Before you say, “I don’t like sprawl,” remember that sprawl is caused by population growth and affluence—and which of these, precisely, do you propose to ban? More development will inevitably put pressure on wild habitats. The scattershot approach of creating national parks now and then ought to be replaced with more methodical land protection. Modest proposal: legislation requiring that for every new acre developed, another be purchased and placed into preservation status. (Costs of this idea would not be onerous, as wild acres sell for far less than development-grade land.)

And the scientific case for artificial global warming continues to strengthen. Though the nightmare scenarios beloved by alarmists still seem improbable, the world has warmed slightly—9 of the 10 warmest years of the past century in the past 11 years—and there is scientific near-consensus that warming is likely to continue. The warming so far has caused no harm, but further warming might disrupt the agriculture on which the world depends or spread equatorial diseases to higher latitudes. This makes it common sense for nations to buy insurance by slowing the accumulation of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Most of the ways to slow carbon buildup involve improving energy efficiency and developing nonfossil power—both reforms that are needed regardless of what happens to the climate.

Today affordable progress against global warming seems inconceivable; but a generation ago, commentators called the Los Angeles smog problem unsolvable. Today no one has a financial incentive to find ways to reduce greenhouse emissions. Create a market incentive, and engineers and business whizzes would likely be brimming with ideas. Financial incentives might happen under the beleaguered Kyoto treaty. If not, the United States could move on its own by creating a system of “carbon trading,” similar to the acid-rain trading system that was both effective and affordable.

Developing Countries

The favorable environmental trends in the West do not extend to the developing world. Increasingly the United States and the European Union approach pristine, while the impoverished parts of the world grow more polluted.

Gross air pollution from unregulated industry, from cars and trucks without Western tailpipe controls, from dirty gasoline and diesel fuels, and worst of all from indoor smoke—more than a billion people worldwide heat and cook with indoor fires—make air pollution in Lagos, Delhi, and many other developing-world cities worse than anything in the West since London in the 1950s. For a third of the world’s population, safe drinking water is a rarity—or an expensive luxury. In Indonesia, for example, the poor spend a significant fraction of their income to buy a few liters of safe water from vendors; here, we pay pennies per thousand gallons. Wastewater treatment is often unknown: I’ve seen boys in Pakistan swimming in open sewage canals that run down city boulevards. All told, the number of children under the age of five who die each year in the developing world from gross air pollution and unsafe drinking water—two causes of death essentially eliminated in the West—is larger than the number of deaths at all ages from all causes each year in the United States and the European Union combined.

One reason Americans and Europeans need to shed the instant-doomsday misperception of their own environment is so that they can turn their attention to the genuine environmental troubles of the developing world. Americans and Europeans won’t support environmental aid to the developing world if they falsely believe their own air and water imperiled. But both citizenries are generous and might back international environmental initiatives if they understood, first, that their own environments are being protected and, second, the degree of human suffering caused by ecological problems in the impoverished world.

Western environmental lobbyists tend to downplay developing-world issues, both for fundraising reasons—people scared about their backyards are more likely to donate—and because what’s needed by the poor who heat with indoor fires is clean electricity, while what’s needed by the poor who buy water by the liter is central reservoir and purification systems. Western environmentalists who would never dream of going without unlimited electricity and clean water condemn such big infrastructure systems as “inappropriate” for the developing world, fulminating about the evils of power generation and dams. Few views are more detached from the reality of human needs.

General ecological need, in turn, is reflected by the threat of species loss in the developing world. For it is not the industrialized West but the developing world—where deforestation continues—that may lose species in the 21st century. And unlike pollution, which can be reversed, species loss is forever.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the most credible organization in this field, lists 180 “critically endangered” mammal species and 182 bird species—more than enough to justify emergency efforts for species conservation. But most work must be done in the developing world, not the West.

What’s Ahead?

Is more environmental progress practical? Absolutely.

In the United States and European Union, most environmental regulations may be characterized as effective but cumbersome—too complex and not sensitive enough to market forces. Replacing complex rules (the Clean Air Act imposes dozens of separate standards on industrial facilities) with simplified performance goals might speed the rate of pollution reduction. Environmentalists and editorialists have been conditioned to denounce any streamlining of EPA rules as a “rollback,” but what’s the goal—rules or pollution reduction? Many areas of environmental law offer opportunities to use streamlining and market forces to allow more progress at lower cost.

Environmental law could also benefit from greater use of risk analysis and trade-off thinking. Millions of dollars may be spent to, say, eliminate the last part per quadrillion of dioxin from the emissions of papermaking plants, even though there is no evidence such minute amounts cause harm, and there are many better ways the millions could be spent. EPA Administrator Christine Whitman just imposed a $500 million Hudson River-PCB dredging cleanup on General Electric, which caused the river’s PCB problems. She took the step although the harm from Hudson River PCBs is comparatively small and declining naturally anyway, and despite the fact there is no guarantee a fleet-sized dredging project will even work—it might make the situation worse by stirring up buried PCBs. Posit that General Electric was guilty of behavior for which $500 million is the proper penalty. The money could be far better spent buying land for preservation, housing the homeless, or perhaps protecting the watershed that provides New York City’s water supply. But the Clean Water Act as written does not allow such utilitarian trade-offs. Many highly prescriptive environmental laws could sensibly be supplanted by a few simplified statutes that grant regulators discretion to pursue the general good.

For the developing world, bad as conditions are, there is reason to hope. Air pollution in Mexico City, one of the world’s most polluted urban areas, has declined for each of the past two years, mainly because Pemex, the Mexican petroleum concern, has begun reformulating gasoline to reduce its inherent pollutant content. Mexico City has a long, long way to go to clear its air. But just a few years ago the city’s situation was commonly described as desperate; now there is guarded optimism. Developments of that sort might be seen as something to celebrate, if it weren’t for Bad News Good, Good News Bad.