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Gregg Easterbrook
From A Moment on the Earth
(Penguin Books, 1995)

From the Preface:
Why the Good News
Shouldn't Scare You

IN the autumn of 1992 I was struck by this headline in the New York Times: "Air Found Cleaner in U.S. Cities." The accompanying story said that in the past five years air quality had improved sufficiently that nearly half the cities once violating federal smog standards no longer did so.

I was also struck by how the Times treated the article -- as a small box buried on page A24. I checked the nation's other important news organizations and learned that none had given the finding prominence. Surely any news that air quality was in decline would have received front-page attention. The treatment suggested that the world was somehow disappointed by an inappropriately encouraging discovery.

American air is getting cleaner. Can this be happening on the same planet from which most current environmental commentary emanates? Vice President Al Gore has described the U.S. environmental situation as "extremely grave -- the worst crisis our country has ever faced." The worst: worse than the enslavement of African-Americans, worse than the persecution of Native Americans, worse than the Civil War, worse than the Depression, worse than World War II. George Mitchell, till 1994 the majority leader of the Senate, has declared that "we risk turning our world into a lifeless desert" through environmental abuse. Gaylord Nelson, who as a senator in 1970 originated Earth Day and who is now a lawyer for the Wilderness Society, said in 1990 that current environmental problems "are a greater threat to the Earth's life sustaining systems than a nuclear war."

And can this be the same planet from which most contemporary environmental writing emanates? Silent Spring, published by Rachel Carson in 1962, foretold such a widespread biological wipeout that today robins should be extinct, no longer greeting the spring with song. Instead the robin is today one of the two or three most prolific birds in the United States. Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, released in 1968, predicted that general crop failures would "certainly" result in mass starvation in the United States by the 1980s. Instead the leading American agricultural problem of that decade was oversupply. The same book found it "not inconceivable" that some ghastly plague triggered by pollution would flash-kill half a billion people. Instead life expectancies have steadily increased, even in the overcrowded Third World. The Limits to Growth, a saturnine 1972 volume acclaimed at the time by critics in the United States, projected that petroleum would be exhausted by the 1990s. Instead oil prices hover near postwar lows, reflecting ample supply. The Sinking Ark, published in 1979 by the biologist Norman Myers, portrayed the vessel of nature as riddled with breaches and going under before our eyes, with thousands of species to become extinct during the 1980s. Instead there were at worst a handful of confirmed extinctions globally in that decade.

A Blueprint for Survival, a 1972 anthology that was a bestseller in the United Kingdom, decreed that environmental trends mean "the breakdown of society, and the irreversible disruption of the life support systems on this planet . . . are inevitable." Green Rage, a 1990 volume by Christopher Manes on "deep" ecology, spoke of humanity as engaged in a "lemminglike march into environmental oblivion." Other recent books and public-interest campaigns have proclaimed a mass "poisoning of America," general radiation calamities, catastrophic climate change, deadly drinking water, and exhaustion of the basic processes of life. Affairs are thought so unswervingly bleak that the writer Bill McKibben, in his much-discussed 1989 work The End of Nature, declared there is no need to wait for the worst. Nature has already ended: ultimately, irrevocably, horrendously.

Yet I look out my window and observe that the sky above the populous Washington, D.C., region where I live each year grows more blue. The sun not only continues to rise; it does so above a horizon that is progressively cleaner. Is everybody talking about the same world?

Let's contemplate smog for a moment. Findings like those described in the first paragraph hardly mean the battle against smog is over. But despite the impression given to the public by fashionably pessimistic commentary, underlying trends in air pollution were positive throughout the 1980s. In that decade ambient smog in the United States declined Let's contemplate smog for a moment. Findings like those described in the first paragraph hardly mean the battle against smog is over. But despite the impression given to the public by fashionably pessimistic commentary, underlying trends in air pollution were positive throughout the 1980s. In that decade ambient smog in the United States declined a composite 16 percent, even as economic output expanded and the number of automobiles increased rapidly. In the beginning of the 1980s there were about 600 air-quality-alert days each year in major cities. By the end of the 1980s there were about 300 such days annually. Air pollution from lead, by far the worst atmospheric poison, declined 89 percent during the 1980s; from carbon monoxide, also poisonous, went down 31 percent; ambient levels of sulfur dioxide, the main precursor of acid rain, declined 27 percent; nitrogen dioxide, another smog cause, went down 12 percent; in no smog category did ambient levels rise. In sum, American air was much less dirty in 1990 than in 1980, not more dirty as commonly believed.

Environmental Protection Agency figures from the 1990s show the improvement trend accelerating. In 1992, the number of Americans living in counties that failed some aspect of air-quality standards was 54 million -- too many, but down from the 86 million people who lived in dirty-air counties in 1991, and only half the 100 million who lived in dirty air in 1982. In 1992 13 major cities, including Detroit and Pittsburgh, met federal standards for smog reduction for the first time, while no new cities were added to the violations list.

In 1993 I wrote an article for Newsweek presenting in detail the argument that the air grows cleaner. Later Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, chair of an important environmental subcommittee, waved the article before EPA administrator Carol Browner during a Senate hearing and declared himself "outraged" that Newsweek had printed such words. Senator Lautenberg did not challenge any of the factual material in the article. He appeared upset simply that positive environmental information was being reported. The good news scared him.

The good news should not scare anyone, particularly lovers of nature. Consider that recent improvements in air quality came mainly during a decade of Republican presidents -- prominently Ronald Reagan, who labored under the garbled impression that trees cause more air pollution than cars. If a significant aspect of the environment got better even under Reagan, it sounds like something important is going on.

Something important is going on here: a fundamental, far-reaching shift toward the positive in environmental events. That shift is the subject of this book.

* * *

Environmental commentary is so fogbound in woe that few people realize measurable improvements have already been made in almost every area. In the United States air pollution, water pollution, ocean pollution, toxic discharges, acid rain emissions, soil loss, radiation exposure, species protection, and recycling are areas where the trend lines have been consistently positive for many years. Yet polls show that people believe the environment is getting worse. Some of this can be explained by the new dynamic of fashionable doomsaying. Today many environmentalists and authors compete to see who can stage the most theatrical display of despair; public officials who once denied that environmental problems exist attempt to compensate by exaggerating in the other direction; celebrities whose lifestyles hardly reflect an ethic of modest consumption pause at limousine doors to demand that SOMEBODY ELSE conserve.

A peculiar intellectual inversion has occurred in which good news about the environment is treated as something that ought to be hushed over, while bad news is viewed with relief. Suppose a satellite produced evidence that ozone depletion was all a data error: some elements of the environmental movement would be heartbroken. Vice President Gore has written, in Earth in the Balance, that journalists should downplay scientific findings of ecological improvement because good news may dilute the public sense of anxiety. Gore has even said that scientists who disagree with the doomsday premise are "unethical" and must be ignored.

To the ecorealist, fashionable pessimism about the environment could not be more wrong, if only because it denies the good done already. In some vexing policy areas such as crime or public education it is difficult to imagine where solutions reside. On environmental affairs I can promise you -- and will show you -- that public investments yield significant benefits within the lifetimes of the people who make the investment. The first round of environmental investments did not fail; they worked, which is a great reason to have more.

I consider this glorious if only because as a political liberal I long for examples of government action that serves the common good. The extraordinary success of modern environmental protection is such an example: perhaps the best instance of government-led social progress in our age.

For this reason I have trouble fathoming why guarded optimism about the environment is politically incorrect. I have no trouble imagining that this situation will change. In the coming ecorealist ethic we will all be environmental optimists, citing conservation and pollution prevention as that rare area where government action and public concern lead promptly to results beneficial to all. Someday even Vice President Gore will smile when he talks about the ecology. Perhaps not tomorrow. But soon.

  • Return to Gregg Easterbrook: Environmental Optimist.

    Copyright © 1995 by Gregg Easterbrook.
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