Black Clouds and Silver Linings

Published August 1, 2006

This article is the fourth 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.

Those who obtain their information on environmental matters from the popular news media are likely to believe the situation must be getting worse, because they read, hear, and see more reports of hazardous substances in the air, water, and food.

The good news is that analytical procedures for finding potentially hazardous substances have become incredibly more accurate. Not many decades ago, finding parts per million was a common goal. Now some substances can be tested down to parts per quadrillion, which is 1 million times more precise than parts per million.

The bad news is that some activists are either uninformed or intentionally mislead the news media and the public into fearing that arsenic, lead, mercury, dioxin, etc., are hazardous at any level that can be found, especially for children. Claims about potentially hazardous substances are absolutely meaningless unless the amount is placed into proper relationship with the health effects of their concentrations.

Global Warming Uncertainty

The good news about global warming is that 400 world scientists of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were uncertain there was any warming occurring, and 87 percent did not believe mankind’s activities would cause future catastrophes.

The bad news is that nonscientist leaders of nations insisted these views be stricken from the finished report, leaving the false impression that scientific research had proven greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, oil, and natural gas had caused global warming and were a serious threat to the future.

California’s Energy Debacle

There are good news aspects of the electricity blackouts in California in 2001. They forced Californians to face the fact that they had allowed production of electricity to fall behind their needs. More inconveniences and actual suffering may lie ahead. The California experience provided a wake-up call for the rest of the United States.

The in-state confusion, accusations, controversies, and general ineffectiveness were a classic example of what happens when politicians take over management of a major sector of the economy. State control of sources, prices, and interstate purchases, etc., was called “deregulation,” and it is to blame for the tangled mess.

You need not be a trained economist to see that when the price of electricity is held down, the demand rises. And when the price producers can charge is held down, you get less of it.

The shallowness of the thinking of California planners is evident in the requirement that a specific percentage of automobiles be electric, reasoning that electric cars are non-polluting. This is obviously false, so it must be intentional deception. Fossil fuel is required to produce the electricity that charges the batteries, so the pollution is just displaced to a different area.

An interesting sidelight on the California energy issue is that windmills used to generate electricity as a substitute for fossil fuel kill thousands of birds each year, including many that are endangered species.

Free Markets Are Green

Contrary to the slogans of many demonstrators throughout the world, the nations that have the best track records on environmental protection and improvement are those with the highest amount of free-market capitalism.

Make no mistake, the demonstrators often add environmentalism to their claimed objectives solely because it attracts many gullible young persons and appears to legitimize activities that often have little or nothing to do with the environment.

Nations with the freest economic systems are the ones whose citizens can afford the luxury of protecting their environments. Persons who survive near the edge on life’s necessities–food, clothing, and shelter–use their natural resources to the absolute limit. They have no other choice in providing for themselves and their families. As incomes rise under free-market conditions, by contrast, people devote more resources to solving environmental problems. Greater wealth and technology improve environmental quality instead of worsening it.

If left alone, the free-market system automatically conserves natural resources by allowing prices to rise on those in short supply, thus encouraging more efficient use, switching to more plentiful alternatives, and discovery of new sources.

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