A Historical Perspective on Environmental Sense and Nonsense

Published June 1, 2006

This article is the second 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.

It serves no useful purpose to blame previous generations for lack of foresight, ruthlessness, or greed in their use of the environment. They had as many thoughtful, public-minded individuals as we now have, but the most pressing issues of the day were not environmental.

Results of acts that we now deplore were totally unpredictable with the information then available. But with our present knowledge and perspective we shall be held accountable by future generations for any lack of wisdom in the choices we make.

Results Count

The world is embarked on a course of government regulation and protection of the environment from which it will never turn back. But the processes and institutional arrangements, though unquestionably noble in purpose, contain the seeds for major changes in the economic order, in private property rights, and in the transfer of political power from the ballot box to self-appointed public interest lobbyists.

Every group and every movement should be judged not by what it claims as its goals and objectives, but by its track record of results and the means used to achieve its ends.

The elitist leadership of the environmental activist movement has been unable to resist the temptation to go far beyond gathering and disseminating information. They seek to make decisions for the rest of society. They mistakenly assume that because they have more information, they also have greater wisdom and better judgment. But the difference between the United States and the rest of the world has been that in the United States we trust the judgment of an informed electorate. Environmental elitists do not.

Deliberation Essential

As long as the issue is esthetics (relating to personal enjoyment, rather than health or safety), then the principle of one person-one vote should prevail. In other words, a factory worker, a farmer, or any other American has an equal right to set the agenda as the most avid environmentalist.

This should be the beginning of a new era in which environmental protection and environmental enhancement can begin in a calm, reasonable manner when scientific information makes better-balanced judgment available. We must not lurch crazily from one proclaimed crisis to another. Here is a challenge to those who are impatient with asserted slow progress toward environmental goals: What crisis anywhere in the United States, even in the world, justifies a “rush to judgment?”

Such action always results in decisions that are dominated by small numbers of activists whose values may not be widely shared. Furthermore, if the underpinning research is inadequate, regulations based thereon may have to be reversed, always at considerable cost and with the regulating agency losing credibility in the process.

The recent reversal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) is a prime example. The compound was required in gasoline in certain cities to reduce carbon monoxide pollution. Within two years the compound was found to have contaminated groundwater in several states, causing an undesirable smell and taste, in addition to being a possible carcinogen. The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to phase it out over four years at a cost of $230 million.

Good News Ignored

Unfortunately, the role of science and scientists is shrinking, while the roles of national environmental organizations and lawyers are growing. Deliberately calculated bad news gets distorted, front-page exposure, while good news remains buried or goes unannounced.

A case in point is the best news in at least 50 years for mankind and for the future of Earth’s ecosystems. It is that the massive population explosion, previously predicted to grow from 6 billion in 2000 to 12 or even 20 billion by the middle of the century, is not going to happen. In the year 2000 the United Nations predicted 8.9 billion people by the year 2050, with the world’s population leveling off, at only a slightly higher number, 30 years later.

This good news has received little publicity, not only from the media but also from world policymakers, perhaps because it weakens the argument for a New World Order.

Doomsday Scenarios Wrong

It is also time to replace the following false doomsday scenarios:

  • that food production cannot keep pace with the number of mouths to feed;
  • that the demands for coal, oil, and natural gas will soon deplete world resources;
  • that the world’s forests will have to be decimated for additional cropland and lumber;
  • that cities, roads, airports, etc. will expand onto needed cropland; and
  • that mountains of garbage will overwhelm available storage sites.

Time has exposed the fallacy of these asserted crises, and the predicted scenarios have lost scientific credibility. Clearly, it is counterproductive to rush to judgment and rashly push for solutions to so-called crises that seldom materialize.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois. His 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.