The Solution to Pollution is Eco-Sanity

Published July 10, 1994

If the modern environmental movement in the United States was born in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, then the movement is now 32 years old. Even though much has changed during those 32 years, the tactics and strategies used by environmentalists still resemble the problem-solving approaches of adolescents.

Emotional appeals, for example, often over-rule more reasoned approaches. Everything–from second-hand smoke to traces of chemicals measured as parts per trillion–is a crisis in urgent need of immediate attention. Quick fixes are always preferred to further research, and there just isn’t enough time to contemplate safer alternatives or more permanent solutions.

The environmental movement, like young people, often confuses scientific and economic issues with moral issues. Pollution, for example, is considered evil while unspoiled nature is good. Polluters–usually faceless corporations–are portrayed as villains, while popular reformers are treated as selfless crusaders. The rights of other people are routinely disregarded, and their property is viewed as being no different from a public park. Compromise is usually seen as surrendering principles, rather than as a necessary step toward achieving goals.

Without wanting to sound too impolite, is it asking too much of environmentalists that they begin to act their age? Making shrill demands and showing no regard for the rights of other people was, perhaps, acceptable when the movement was still in its infancy, trying to get attention and to be taken seriously. But today, over 70 percent of Americans call themselves “environmentalists.” Today, over $150 billion is spent each year complying with environmental regulations. (Over $1 trillion has been spent on pollution abatement since the first Earth Day in 1970.) Maybe today, a more mature and rational approach to protecting the environment is in order.

A more mature environmental movement would admit that the science behind the global warming scare is very dubious and not sufficient grounds for legislating against the use of fossil fuels. It would stop campaigning against things, like plastic packaging or disposable diapers, that pose little or no environmental threat. It would acknowledge the dramatic progress made in reducing air and water pollution emissions since the 1960s, and the medical research showing record human longevity and declining age-adjusted cancer rates.

A sane and mature approach to environmentalism would admit that the world is getting cleaner and safer over time. It would highlight, not ignore, such recent breakthroughs as coal ash recycling and improved soil reclamation efforts. It would celebrate, not deny, the existence of coal and oil reserves sufficient to last hundreds of years. And it would admit that further progress toward a cleaner environment requires careful research and weighing costs against benefits, not panicky reactions to every prediction or unsubstantiated claim.

The good news is that more and more environmentalists are breaking ranks from the alarmists and demagogues who so often represent the movement. Opinion polls show a distancing of the general public from radical environmentalist positions. New groups devoted to science, reason, and respect for the rights of others are being formed all across the country.

The shift toward eco-sanity is underway. Whether the transition is quick and relatively painless, or drawn-out and full of suffering, is up to each environmentalist. But there is no stopping the change that has already begun.

Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute. He is coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1994).