Earth Day ‘99: Cause for Celebration, Not Alarm

Published April 1, 1999

April 22–Earth Day–has become the country’s de facto national environment holiday, a day when Americans from Maine to California, and from Alaska to Hawaii, turn their attention to environmental concerns.

But unlike most holidays–happy occasions of celebration–Earth Day is awash in pessimism and gloom. According to opinion polls, most Americans think the quality of their environment has deteriorated since the first Earth Day in 1970, and they are pessimistic about our environmental future.

The annual Wirthlin Group poll on the environment, conducted every summer since the early 1980s, consistently finds that most Americans believe the quality of the environment will deteriorate in their lifetime. Fifty-seven percent of respondents to a recent Roper agreed with the statement, “The 1990s is the last decade when humans will have a chance to save the Earth from environmental catastrophe.”

What People Know That Isn’t so

Such poll results illustrate the great paradox in public opinion: While the public thinks the quality of the environment has deteriorated, it has in fact improved dramatically since the first Earth Day in 1970.

The paradox can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that no benchmarks of environmental progress are readily available to the public or the media. Neither the federal government nor any major environmental organization produces a consistent review of trends in the environment. Even the Annual Report of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality focuses on a different issue every year, and thus is of little use to those who would evaluate our progress on key indicators over time.

To address the need for hard data comparable across time, the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) launched its Index of Leading Environmental Indicators in 1994. The fourth edition of the Index, to be published this year in conjunction with several of the nation’s leading state-based public policy research organizations, will be accompanied by supplemental reports about environment trends in Illinois, Oklahoma, Washington, Minnesota, and Georgia.

This year’s Index focuses special attention on the role of long-term economic growth and technological innovation in producing improvements in the quality of the environment. Americans commonly believe that improvements in the quality of their environment over time have been the result of laws and regulations, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Although EPA and the federal government’s laws and regulations have made important contributions to our improving environment, taking a longer-term perspective sheds new light on environmental progress and its fundamental causes.

Example: Air Quality Improving Long Before Earth Day

Air quality, for example, had been improving in most American cities for several decades before the first Earth Day. Sulfur dioxide levels fell by one-third in the decade before enactment of the first federal Clean Air Act. The problem of particulate matter in the older industrial cities of the northeast also has improved significantly, starting in about 1925.

Such verifiable improvements in air quality are attributable not to any action by the federal government, but to the simple efficiency gains from industry upgrading its technology. The industrial drive for cost-saving efficiency typically leads to cleaner technology.

An especially vivid and under-appreciated example can be found by looking at simple firewood. At the turn of the century, nearly one-third of America’s heating needs were met by burning wood. As fuel oil, natural gas, and electricity became widely adopted, starting in the early decades of the century, the use of wood for fuel fell rapidly, from more than 5 billion cubic feet in 1900 to less than 500 million cubic feet in 1970.

In this century, firewood use increased only during the Great Depression, when fewer people could afford new gas and oil furnaces, and when businesses reduced their spending for capital equipment. Here is a clear example of the effect of economic growth–and the lack of it–on resource use and environmental quality. Ironically, during the “energy crisis” of the 1970s one of the remedies touted by environmentalists was a return to wood stoves–which would have represented a step backward for air quality.

Coal and wood smoke were not the only air quality hazards faced by our forebears in urban locations. At the turn of the century, horse-drawn carts or trucks were a primary mode of intra-city transportation. Some 1.4 million horse-drawn vehicles traveled the streets of the U.S. in 1900. The transportation capacity of the country’s “horse fleet” was three-quarters as great as the capacity of the railroads in 1900; as late as 1911 the value of horse-drawn transportation equipment produced in the U.S. was greater than the value of railroad equipment produced.

The air and water quality hazards from horse dung are obvious: A single horse would produce 12,000 pounds of manure and 400 gallons of urine a year, much of which fell on city streets. The pollution control technology of that time was a broom.

Less obvious is the huge amount of cropland necessary to grow feed for the thousands of draft animals needed for this mode of transportation and freight hauling. The average horse consumed about 30 pounds of feed a day–five tons a year. The amount of land used for growing feedstock for horses peaked in 1915 at 93 million acres–an area nearly one-third larger than that taken up today by all U.S. cities combined. The U.S. government discontinued its data series for feedstock land in 1961, because the acreage had shrunk nearly to zero.

The substitution of the internal combustion engine for horse-drawn urban transportation represented an environmental improvement, which led to lower amounts of urban particulate air pollution and water pollution from animal waste. Those changes contributed significantly to the improvement in human health during the twentieth century. Respiratory disease rates in the U.S., for example, have fallen eightfold during the century; while many factors have contributed to that improvement in human health, lower air pollution is certainly prominent among them.

A Time for Optimism . . . Supported by Sound Information

In his 1995 opus, A Moment on the Earth, environment writer Gregg Easterbrook wrote: “Environmental commentary is so fogbound in woe that few people realize measurable improvements have already been made in almost every area.”

PRI’s Index of Leading Environmental Indicators helps address that misperception. Replete with hard data and careful analysis, the report makes possible great optimism about the future of our environment, both in the U.S. and around the world.

With that knowledge, this year’s 29th anniversary of Earth Day may be celebrated after all.