Earth Day Activists Ignore Progress

Published June 1, 2004

Environmental activists launched the annual Earth Day ritual in 1970 to bemoan the “havoc” wreaked on Earth by humans.

Thirty-four years later, environmental activists still rant and rave about what we “bad” people do to the “good” Earth. And, of course, politics are never very far behind, especially in an election year. On a campaign stop for John Kerry in Tampa, Florida, Clinton-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Carol Browner labeled the Bush administration the “worst ever” on environmental issues.

Got to Admit, It’s Getting Better

The good news, however, is that the bad news is wrong, according to the 2004 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators just released by the Pacific Research Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. Here are some examples:

  • Average vehicle emissions are dropping about 10 percent per year as the fleet turns over to cleaner vehicles, including SUVs.
  • Auto emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds are down 67 percent since 1985, according to EPA data.
  • The percentage of the U.S. population served by water systems with no reported violations of regulatory standards rose from 79 percent to 94 percent between 1993 and 2002.
  • Private efforts such as Ducks Unlimited have successfully conserved habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.
  • “Toxic” chemical releases have declined by 55 percent since 1988, while industry output has increased by 40 percent thanks to productivity gains and technological improvements.

Bush Record Is Sound

Contrary to Browner’s comments on behalf of John Kerry, the Bush administration has made progress on the environment.

First and foremost, Bush got us out of that disastrous global warming treaty, negotiated by the Clinton administration, known as the Kyoto Protocol. The major reductions in energy use that would have been required to meet the treaty’s goals would have spelled economic disaster.

What’s economics got to do with the environment? That’s simple. The only reason we can afford the burdensome costs imposed on us by stringent environmental regulation–for example, wastewater discharged by industrial facilities must be much cleaner than upon intake, if not absolutely pristine–is because we are such a wealthy society. And we will need all the wealth we can lay our hands on if we are to keep appeasing environmental activists through costly regulation.

Next, as the western wildfire season approaches, we should remember it was Bush who signed into law last December provisions that will help reduce the threat of catastrophic forest fires. Thanks in part to environmentalist opposition to the thinning of underbrush, more than 700,000 acres burned last year in California alone. Twenty people were killed and more than 2,600 homes were destroyed. Wildfires burned nearly seven million acres in 2002, killing 23 firefighters, destroying more than 800 homes, and costing taxpayers more than $1.5 billion.

If you are one of those misguided souls who still believes trace amounts of various substances in the air and water are dangerous to your health, remember it was during the first year of the Bush administration that the arsenic-in-drinking-water standard was made more stringent. Bush has also, for the first time ever, proposed a plan for reducing mercury emissions from power plants. Browner had eight years to do these things but didn’t.

Diminishing Returns?

There’s no question we’ve made a lot of progress in environmental protection since the first Earth Day and we continue to do so, as evidenced by the 2004 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators. There are a couple things to keep in mind, however.

At the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, human activity affecting the environment was essentially unregulated, as compared with today’s vast array of laws and regulations. We have been able to make great progress in reducing undesirable environmental impact because we started from scratch and then put tremendous resources into the effort.

But now, in many if not most areas of environmental protection, we have reached the point of diminishing returns. We must look hard to see whether we are producing real benefits for the costs incurred.

Sure, we can produce drinking water virtually without arsenic … but should we? Why bear the costs if no one is being harmed by current arsenic levels? And yes, we can reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but why risk shattering our economy if we’re not certain humans are adversely impacting global climate?

Rather than thoughtless, feel-good Earth Day celebrations ceaselessly calling for more burdensome command-and-control-type environmental regulations, a more rational approach is needed.

Let’s make sure Earth Day over-exuberance doesn’t lead to an economic Dearth Day.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The 2004 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators is available online at the Pacific Research Institute’s Center for Environmental Studies,

“What’s economics got to do with the environment? … The only reason we can afford the burdensome costs imposed on us by stringent environmental regulation … is because we are such a wealthy society.”