Index of Leading Environmental Indicators Dispels Popular Myths

Published May 1, 1998

Though the public continues to express a great deal of pessimism and anxiety about the environment, a recently completed wide-ranging analysis of environmental trends in the U.S. and Canada shows that such fears are misplaced. In almost every respect, the report concludes, environmental quality in both countries is improving dramatically.

According to the most recent (1997) Wirthlin survey of the public’s opinion on environmental issues, 79 percent of survey respondents think that “problems regarding pollution and the environment will get worse during my lifetime.” Just how unfounded such negative expectations are can be seen in The Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, published in 1997 by the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy and the Fraser Institute.

Using data gathered from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Environment Canada, and other government agencies, researchers at the two think tanks have developed a series of “environmental indicators” for the U.S. and Canada. The indicators are designed to help the public assess more accurately the state of the environment in several key areas: air quality, water quality, natural resources, land use and condition, solid wastes, energy, pesticides, toxic releases, and wildlife.

The Index finds a gradual improvement in environmental quality in virtually all areas. Its authors attribute the improvement to the “wealth effect.”

“The wealthier the nation, the better its ability to protect its natural resources and control pollution,” the report points out. “Economic growth means improved technology and, therefore, more efficient uses of raw material and energy. The Index demonstrates the effect that this growth, combined with a growing consumer preference for a clean environment, has had on both the United States and Canada.”