A Historical Perspective of Environmental Sense and Nonsense

Published May 1, 2006

This article is the first in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, excerpted and abridged by Jay Lehr.

One has to be about 80 years old to remember when homes were lit by kerosene lamps, which released smoke continually; when homes were heated with wood or coal stoves that belched smoke or soot into the air constantly and into the room most every time the stove door was opened for refilling; when minimally treated sewage was discharged into the nearest river or lake; when city streets were littered with horse manure; when laundry could not be hung outdoors during cold weather because of soot; when small dust clouds followed moving vehicles on unpaved streets; and when garden pests were controlled with deadly poisonous arsenic, lead, and mercury compounds which persisted almost indefinitely in the soil.

The goals of environmental protection are stimulating and exciting. Because everyone believes in a good environment, working toward this goal can be a uniting force for many diverse elements in our society.

Unfortunately, finding whipping boys for environmental problems–many real, some imaginary, and nearly all exaggerated–was an integral part of the early period of environmental discontent and continues today.

Environmental Improvement

The search for better ways to protect our environment turned to some extent into a vendetta aimed at big business, government officials, and the “establishment” in general. Hysteria was effective in gaining attention, focusing on environmental problems, and initiating action to correct them.

But hysteria’s time has past.

The year 2000 was the 30th anniversary of the awakening of a sleeping giant: the environmental movement in the United States. The Environmental Protection Act was passed, followed soon by the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the first Earth Day. Alarms had been sounded earlier, but action was mainly uncoordinated.

Now is the time to take a look at where we are and what has been achieved, and to learn from our experience in order to make wiser choices for the future.

Enormous Progress

Since 1970, enormous progress has been made, but it has not received the attention it deserves.

There is much good to celebrate. City smog is nearly gone. Industries have cleansed huge amounts of pollutants from their smokestacks and reduced discharges into rivers and lakes. Most of the visible discharge into the air is steam, not smoke, hence the title of the book from which this column is excerpted. No major city discharges untreated sewage into surface waters.

The motto “the solution to pollution is dilution” is gone forever. Miles per gallon of cars and trucks have increased dramatically, and unwanted emissions are in steep decline. Farmers have increased crop yields while greatly reducing erosion. High crop yields on the most favorable land have freed up previously farmed land for forests, parks, and recreation. Forests in the United States are growing faster than they are being harvested. Electricity is being generated with far less air pollution. Eagles and wolves are no longer endangered species.

Unsubstantiated Myths

Despite these and other dramatic improvements, many popular myths still persist. Among the myths:

  • That many foods are unsafe because of pesticide residues. They aren’t.
  • That mankind’s activities are a major cause of proven global warming. It isn’t proven, and no one knows what effect human activities have or will have.
  • Many think that a thinning of the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere is new, dramatic, and a serious threat of deadly skin cancer. This is not true.
  • Asbestos is widely accepted as a major cancer threat in schools. This is not the case.
  • Many city dwellers think the air they breathe is dangerously polluted and getting worse. That is false.
  • Many believe recycling of city wastes must be accelerated because the United States is running out of landfill space. Not so: Space is plentiful and cheap.
  • Many persons have been told old-growth forests, especially in Brazil, are the lungs of the Earth and that the area of forests in the United States is dwindling. Both are false.
  • The Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the Love Canal chemical dump are usually described by news media as environmental disasters, the worst of their kind. Economic disasters, yes; health hazards, no.

Correcting Misperceptions

Public perceptions of these and other issues have been created by professional environmentalists plus a small group of highly visible, publicity-seeking scientists who feed the voracious appetites of the news media for sensational stories. In some cases, sad to say, misinformation has been spread by exaggerated claims of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency itself.

It is time for concerned citizens to rise up in righteous indignation at treatment of environmental matters that is superficial, biased, distorted, or advocacy journalism masquerading as facts but based upon opinions rather than scientific research.

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois. Aldrich’s groundbreaking hardcover book for laymen, Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be viewed at http://www.heartland.org.