The unappreciated optimist

Published April 1, 2000

Ronald Bailey is an environmental journalist with a commitment to sound science. He is science correspondent for Reason magazine and the author of several books, including: Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse (St. Martins Press, 1993); The True State of The Planet (The Free Press, 1995); and Earth Report 2000: The True State of the Planet (McGraw-Hill, 1999).

Bailey has produced several series and documentaries for PBS television and ABC News. His articles and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Commentary, The New York Times Book Review, The Public Interest, Smithsonian Magazine, National Review, Reason, Forbes, The Washington Times, Newsday, and The Readers Digest. He has lectured at Harvard University, Rutgers University, McGill University, University of Alaska, Universite de Quebec a Montreal, the Cato Institute, the Instituto de Libertad y Desarrollo (Chile), and the American Enterprise Institute.

With all this experience covering news, breakthroughs, victories, and losses for the environment, Bailey seemed like the perfect person to talk to about Earth Day: what it’s all about, what it has achieved, and where it’s headed. E&CN contributing editor Don Lobo Tiggre reached Bailey at his home in Washington, DC in February.

Tiggre: Do you think Earth Day is a good thing to celebrate? Has it spurred positive change, or just given a platform to extreme environmentalist factions with other agendas?

Bailey: Let’s look at it a different way—at all the predictions that were made on the first Earth Day, at who was there and what they were saying.

The fact of the matter is they’re still saying the same things they said 30 years ago—still talking about overpopulation, overconsumption, imminent famine, pollution, and problems associated with pollution. Some speakers were even saying back then that we needed to adopt some version of the precautionary principle.

Tiggre: “The precautionary principle”—can you explain that?

Bailey: The precautionary principle boils down to the ancient wisdom of “better safe than sorry.” That makes it a sort of veto principle for everything: “We do nothing new until it can be absolutely proven to be completely safe.” And that, of course, is a recipe for paralysis.

One popular formulation of the principle is: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” One reading of the principle means that anyone who merely raises “threats of harm” with no more evidence than their fearful imagination gets to invoke precautionary measures. Similar versions of the principle have been enacted into international treaties, particularly the climate change treaty, and now the bio-safety protocol.

Having to fend off mere imagined threats creates great hurdles for introducing new products into the market. That has a negative effect on innovation, which has been the chief force for environmental progress.

Innovation is the reason we have less air pollution. Cars today produce exactly 5 percent of the pollution they did in the 1960s, and we owe that to innovation.

Tiggre: So there have been people at Earth Day rallies calling for greater application of the precautionary principle?

Bailey: Yes. People like Senator Gaylord Nelson and Barry Commoner were saying that before any new product could be put out on the market, they should have government clearance first. Any new product. They were thinking along the lines of pesticides, for example, and polluting technologies.

Tiggre: So, the very people who are trying to help the environment are hurting it by stifling the best avenue we have for improving it?

Bailey: That’s right. And they also want to cut down on consumption. One of the formulas of the times is that every American child causes 25 times more damage to the environment than any Indian child, or 40 times more than any Indonesian child. The central claim is that Americans are greedy people who are using up the Earth’s resources faster than people living in developing countries, with the implication being that we should live more like them—we should use fewer resources.

But that’s a recipe for environmental disaster. The environments in India and Indonesia are not better, because their people are poor. Only rich people can afford the kinds of technologies and expenses that it takes to take better care of the environment.

Tiggre: If you look, for example, in Mexico, you see how much dirtier the cities are, how much dirtier the air is. Some people say that’s because the government isn’t doing the right things—isn’t making people take better care of the environment. But you’re saying it’s poverty-related?

Bailey: The people in those cities don’t like the air that way, but they aren’t going to demand that it be fixed because they have other priorities. They have to earn a living, they have to feed their families. It would be nice to have cleaner air, but they are not going to agitate for the government or business to do anything about it because they are much more concerned about making a living at this point.

As countries get wealthier, there are various thresholds of per-capita income where people start demanding that certain ecological problems be addressed, whether through government regulation—which it usually is, unfortunately—or otherwise. These “environmental transitions” seem like universal rules.

At about $3,300 (USD) of annual per-capita income, people start demanding that something be done about the smoke particulates in the air. The levels of air pollutants start falling at that point. At about $3,700, people start demanding that something be done about sulfur dioxide in the air.

Mexico, now that you bring it up, is at this point. The per-capita income is just at the point where people are saying, “we’ve got to do something about all this pollution in the air.” And the faster they get rich, the faster they are going to take care of the environment. It’s universal. It happened in Japan, it happened in western Europe, it certainly happened here.

Tiggre: That’s quite an assertion—what’s it based on? Did someone do a study?

Bailey: Yes, the Wold Bank did a study on this. They identified these environmental thresholds.

Another study, by economists John Antle and Gregg Heidebrink, found that beginning at about $3,000 per-capita annual income, countries begin to see afforestation and an increase in land set aside for protection. People start appreciating environmental amenities; they want to be able to take their families on picnics out in the countryside, etc.

Tiggre: So does anyone give people like you a chance to say such things at an Earth Day rally, or would you get tossed out for being a heretic?

Bailey: (Chuckles) No . . . I haven’t actually had the pleasure of addressing an Earth Day rally. My speaking experience comes from giving talks on college campuses quite often.

I point out that there are environmental positives. And I acknowledge that we still have problems: global fisheries are in decline, for example, and tropical forests are still being cut down at an unsustainable rate. I try to address those problems by saying that every serious environmental problem is almost always an open access commons problem.

Tiggre: A “tragedy of the commons”?

Bailey: Yes. There’s nobody there who owns the resources who’s willing to stand there and protect them.

Tiggre: So what would you identify as the most serious environmental problems—not the ones that get the most hype, but the real ones that still need to be dealt with?

Bailey: On a global level, we really have to do something about the ocean fisheries. They are still declining and are being overfished terribly.

There are two solutions to that. One is the solution that Iceland and New Zealand have used, and that is to privatize them: They’ve given the right to fish certain waters to certain fishermen. In both Iceland and New Zealand, the fisheries are no longer in decline, but have in fact rebounded nicely.

The other thing is to turn increasingly to aquaculture. Instead of hunting and gathering fish, we’re going to have to farm them.

Tiggre: How do you farm something like salmon, a fish that wants to migrate all over the world?

Bailey: Ninety percent of the salmon you eat is farmed. Off the coast of Maine, off the coast of Chile, and off the coast of Scotland. You can read about it in a wonderful chapter of our Earth Report 2000.

Another problem is that tropical forests are still being cut down. Again, it’s a problem similar to what we have with the oceans: Nobody owns the forests.

Some people say, “Well, the government of Brazil owns the forests,” but the government of Brazil—how shall we say—is less than efficient in managing their resources. They face tremendous political pressures to allow poor farmers to go into those areas and practice slash-and-burn agriculture. No one is standing there in the forest saying, “Stop, don’t cut down that tree.” It’s an open access commons again.

The forests in Europe and North America have been expanding for over 50 years. I would argue that this is the result of two things: one is increased wealth, and two is very strong property rights.

Another environmental problem is that developing countries still have terrible problems with air and water pollution. Again, these are open access commons, and the people and governments don’t have enough money to try to manage them. My hope would be that they avoid our mistakes of top-down regulation and figure out ways to privatize or semi-privatize things. It would be a lot more efficient and get a lot more bang for the buck.

Tiggre: Didn’t New Zealand do something like that and sell land to paper companies that went in and planted more trees than there were before?

Bailey: Yes. New Zealand has set aside all remaining natural forests—they can’t be chopped down—and they’ve sold the rest of them to the paper companies, who are now planting them in exotic pine trees. They grow very well there, and because of this the forests in New Zealand are expanding very rapidly.

The issue remains of whether you want exotic pine trees to be growing in New Zealand, or whether you’d rather have the native vegetation. Still, the point is that by doing it this way, you have saved all the other forests, because like agriculture, all of the logging is being intensified on a very small portion of the forest land.

Globally, if we could have plantation forests on about 5 percent of the forest area, and if those forests were well managed, they could supply all our needs for paper and lumber. And that would mean the other 95 percent of the forests would remain natural.

Tiggre: That sounds like a positive proposal. What about other environmental good news?

Bailey: In my lectures on campuses, I point out the positive trends: air pollution is down 75 percent since 1970, and it’s much better than that if you go back to the 1940s. Water pollution is better too. We don’t have very good measures of that, but the fact is that most rivers in the United States are not open sewers any more.

When I was a high school band student, I went on a trip to Mt. Vernon, and there was a sign on the Potomac River saying: “Do not come into contact with the water. It can be hazardous to your health.” Now, of course, people boat, fish, and swim in it with no problem whatsoever.

I also point out in my lectures the trends of expanding forests in the U.S. and Europe, greater food security around the world, increasing human life span. And there’s more good news: the National Cancer Institute and the FDA have concluded that synthetic chemicals of all types—pesticides and others—are probably responsible for less than 1 percent of all cancers.

If you look around, most of the trends are fairly positive on the global level. So I conclude that my audiences are going to have very bright futures—at which point I get booed.

Tiggre: Why the negative response?

Bailey: What they’re hearing is that for some reason I want to deny the true crises that are out there. There’s a kind of romantic notion of, “If my generation doesn’t save this planet, nobody will.” When you tell them things are basically getting better, they don’t like it.

Tiggre: Where is the environmental movement as a whole? People like you are in the minority, and there’s a leadership with a different agenda. If things are getting better, what’s their plan?

Bailey: This is another point I try to make when speaking: environmental groups are interest groups, just like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the tobacco lobby, or the American Petroleum Institute. They have interests. I don’t want to say they are completely being conspiratorial, but the fact is that if there aren’t any environmental problems, there is no reason for them to exist.

Environmental groups make a living by scaring people. They say they’re merely exposing the terrible truth about the trends; in my opinion, they’re misinforming people in order to scare them.

Some time back, the Cato Institute worked up a response to Greenpeace, which had just published a book identifying 61 “anti-environmental” organizations to watch out for. Cato looked at the budgets of all these organizations and added them up. It turned out to be about $65 million.

Then they added up the budgets for the 12 largest environmental organizations: the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace itself, and so on. They had about $650 million in combined funding. The 12 had ten times the funding of the 61 so-called anti-environment organizations. Greenpeace’s budget alone was larger than all 61 groups combined.

The 12 environmental groups spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And they need to get it in order to spend it—all by scaring people. You know: “Send me $20 or the panda will die,” or “Send me $20 or your grandmother will die of cancer.”

I’m being a little unfair, but this is the kind of message in their mailings—it’s pretty hysterical sometimes. It’s sort of the left-wing equivalent of Jerry Falwell going after gays.

Tiggre: To be fair, are any of the big environmental groups actually doing any good, working on real problems instead of just trying to milk scared people? Do they ever acknowledge the positive?

Bailey: Well, they take back with one hand what they give. They’ll say, “The eagle is back . . . but there are still 12,000 endangered species on the list and the list is still growing.” I can’t say I trust the data from almost any of them.

Tiggre: What about an outfit like Ducks Unlimited, that works on bringing habitat into the private sector, where it can be protected?

Bailey: Oh, yes. I guess I don’t think of them as being the same kind of group as an activist organization. They are actually doing things to preserve habitat and protect the environment.

Tiggre: What about books like The True State of the Planet, Eco-Scam, and Earth Report 2000. Are they doing any good?

Bailey: I think we’re making a difference. College professors, for example, use our books as a contrast to the others. A lot of students are fascinated when they hear me lecture, because this is information they haven’t heard before.

Tiggre: So, would it be safe to sum up your advice to people who want to help by saying they should give their time and money to groups that actually do conservation work, and stay away from political activist groups?

Bailey: Yes, I would say that. What they really ought to do is look around for local organizations, or national organizations like Ducks Unlimited, and try to figure out how their money can go directly to projects, and not to political action—the moral equivalent of political action committees here in Washington.