Sound Science for the [Overly] Concerned Public

Published March 1, 2004

The Progress Paradox : How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse
by Gregg Easterbrook
($24.95, 376 pages, Random House Publishers, 2003, ISBN: 0679463038)

There have been some excellent environmental science books written in recent years. Gregg Easterbrook has now stood on the shoulders of these authors with his brilliantly informative work, The Progress Paradox.

While I have found Easterbrook’s past writings to be aligned more with the pro-government left than with free minds and markets, this book is definitely fair and balanced, with philosophic inputs that are wonderfully thought-provoking. Were it to be required reading around the world, billions of dollars would no longer be spent on foolish regulatory programs. Perhaps as much could be saved on psychologists trying to lift people from depression, and millions of lives could be saved as we redirect our time, energy, and funds to concerns that have real, rather than hypothetical, effects on people worldwide.

I have often disagreed with Easterbrook on many issues and believe he continues to exhibit unwarranted concern over greenhouse gases and global warming, but nothing is perfect. The Progress Paradox, however, comes close.

As many readers of Environment & Climate News will recall, I review many more books that make travesties of science than those that contribute significantly to it. This is clearly among the latter. The Progress Paradox ranks among the 10 most important books I have read in the past 20 years.

Easterbrook recounts, in smooth journalistic fashion, nearly all that is right with the world with respect to air, water, soil health, life expectancy, crime, education, and economic growth, while cogently explaining why good news rarely attracts attention and precisely who is to blame. I quote from his work below.


“Most of the rise in health care spending stems not from the prices of medical goods and services, most of which have been declining in real dollar terms, but from increased utilization. The population is aging, and the aging require more care than the young.”

“Public health is improving by nearly every measure, including rising longevity and falling rates of most diseases; even many forms of cancer are in decline.”

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average American life expectancy at birth was forty-one years. … [B]y the beginning of the twenty-first century, the typical American life expectancy at birth had risen to seventy-seven years.”

“By the year 2000, U.S. incidence of heart disease was 60 percent lower, adjusted for population increase, than in 1950; Incidence of stroke deaths fell 70 percent in the same period.”


“Doomsday claims to the contrary, environmental trends are nearly all positive, with all forms of pollution except greenhouse gases in steady decline in the United States and the European Union.”

“Twenty-five years ago, only one-third of America’s lakes and rivers were safe for fishing and swimming; today two-thirds are, and the proportion continues to rise.”

“Boston Harbor, whose filth was ridiculed in a political commercial that was pivotal to the 1988 presidential election, now has water so clear that revelers do ceremonial New Year’s Day dips.”

“Since 1970 smog has declined by a third, even as the number of cars has nearly doubled and vehicle-miles traveled have increased by 43 percent.”

“Acid rain has declined by 67 percent, even though the United States now burns almost twice as much coal annually to produce electric power.”

“During the 2000 presidential election much was made of the fact that Houston had taken over Los Angeles as the nation’s ‘smog capitol.’ Hardly anyone added that this happened during a period when Houston smog diminished.”

“Rocky Mountain Arsenal, outside Denver, where nerve gas was once made and a location regularly described … as ‘the most toxic place on earth’ has been a National Wildlife Preserve for ten years: eagles and other biologically delicate species now thrive there.”


“Modern high-yield farming is a marvel, filling the granaries of the Western nations with an annual abundance of fruits, vegetables, and cereals at prices generally lower, in inflation-adjusted terms, than in the 1950s.”

“Modern ranching provides equally impressive quantities of excellent high-protein beef, pork, and poultry, at affordable prices, plus affordable aqua-farmed salmon and other fish.”

“Genetic engineering of crop plants promises foods grown with fewer chemicals, containing less fat and more protein, the elimination of allergens–that is, peanuts to which no one is allergic.”

“Crop failures have become unheard-of, while erosion and soil loss to wind have declined–the Dust Bowl, it is important to recall, occurred before the widespread adoption of high yield farming, which has since prevented any dust-bowl effects, even during drought years.”

“Genetic engineering of crops appears safe, with many studies including by the National Research Council, an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences, having found no dangers in genetically modified plants.”

Why We Don’t Hear the Good News

The foregoing litany of feel-good data, presented by Easterbrook with solid supporting references, is but the tip of the informative iceberg you will find between the covers of this book.

But what is far more important is that Easterbrook understands why the public is not generally told these things, and he explains it with amazing clarity. His most telling examples deal with distorted fundraising rants from environmental advocacy groups and political parties as well as the media’s inviolable rule that says, “if it bleeds it leads.” Good news, if printed at all, can be found at the bottom of page 18.

“[M]ost contemporary fund-raising turns on high-decibel assertions that everything’s going to hell,” writes Easterbrook. “It is not, but because fund-raisers have grown so adept at targeted marketing, their contaminated messages surround us nonetheless.”

“Environmental fund-raising is telling as an example of the money being at the extremes. The steady environmental improvement in the United States should be a subject of national pride–there ought to be crowing about how activists, government officials, business managers, and average citizens worked together to overcome an ‘insoluble’ problem without penalty to national prosperity. … But there is no money to be made in harmony. Environmentalists and Democratic candidates can raise funds by crying environmental doomsday, so it is doomsday they cry.”

If you also have wondered why so many prominent people in entertainment and of wealth appear always to be wringing their hands over one desperate crisis or another, Easterbrook says there appears to be a conditioned desire felt by the privileged to look with disdain at the societies that permit the favored lives they lead.

Among fundraisers, politicians, environmentalists, and the elite classes, concerns always constitute a “crisis.” There would appear to be no modest problems. All thrive on bad news, regardless how exaggerated or fraudulent it may be. As a result, we get a constant distortion of the country’s faults and little if any discussion of what’s right with the world. Sadly, few of us are able to differentiate fact from fiction in this sea of gloom and doom.

The news media is a most willing collaborator in all of this. They adore the word “crisis” and use it as often as they can.”[I]t’s one thing to highlight when the bad happens–as they should,” Easterbrook points out, “and another to pretend that the good does not happen, as they also do.”

Lately, with most actual events being mainly positive, the media has become obsessed with the bad things that “might” happen. Easterbrook documents these situations in a manner that cannot help but make the reader finally understand the “big picture.”

An excellent example is his explanation of the minor panic the media caused when the President delayed a decision to reduce the 50-year-old arsenic standard for drinking water. We were led to believe by the media, egged on by the anti-Bush crowd, that each day the standard was not lowered to 10 parts per billion would mean countless Americans could perish. In fact, however, not a single death attributable to arsenic poisoning occurred during the half-century the 50 parts per billion standard was in effect.

Similarly, Easterbrook’s telling of how the media and environmental activists have distorted the totally positive impact of biotechnology on agriculture will take your breath away.

Jay H. Lehr, Ph.D. is science director for The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].