24 April 2002

The "Environmentalists" are at least as dumb now as they were in 1970:

Cavalier Daily (University of Virginia)
Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Disputing claims of impending doom

By Anthony Dick
Cavalier Daily Associate Editor

THIRTY-TWO years and two days ago, the first Earth Day kicked off amid gloomy outlooks on the future of the planet. In the April 1970 issue of "Mademoiselle," prominent Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich fueled environmental angst with the prophecy that "Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100 to 200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years." The same year, Ehrlich made the even bolder claim that, between 1980 and 1989, 4 billion people - including 65 million Americans - would die worldwide due to rampant overpopulation, environmental pollution and starvation. That same year, "Life" magazine reported, "in a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution" (http://reason.com/0005/fe.rb.earth.shtml).

With other environmental scientists agreeing with Ehrlich, public passions ran high and people braced for the cataclysm that the experts told them inevitably was coming. But it never did.

Today, many fervent environmentalists predict the year 2030 to be as bleak for humanity as Ehrlich thought 2000 would be. While there still are numerous legitimate environmental concerns and challenges that the world must meet resolutely, the Earth's future isn't the foregone conclusion of silent springs, barren landscapes and famine that green-clad prophets of doom would like us to think.

The staggeringly false predictions of Ehrlich and other environmentalists of the 1970s teach us two important deterministic assumptions that we must avoid if we are to think clearly about our planet's future. The first assumption was based on Thomas Malthus' postulate that as population sizes rise exponentially, food production and supply only will increase arithmetically. The second assumption is built on the unpleasant imagery of billowing smokestacks and smog-spewing automobiles that many shared in the 1970s. It stated that as technology and industrialization increased, pollution of both air and water also would inevitably rise to critical levels.

Yet the world population has almost doubled since 1970, from 3.5 billion to just over 6 billion, and the world has become undeniably more saturated by both technology and industry. Contrary to Ehrlich's prophecy of doom, though, the amount of food that exists per person today is more than 25 percent larger than it was in 1970. Between 1960 and 1987, food production increased nearly 60 percent, without any significant increase in land area devoted to this production (http://reason.com/0005/fe.rb.earth.shtml). According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency's National Air Trends Report of 2000, located on the Internet at http://www.epa.gov/oar/aqtrnd00, U.S. Gross Domestic Product increased 158 percent, energy consumption increased 45 percent and vehicle miles traveled have increased 143 percent since 1970.

At the same time, emissions of the six principal pollutants have been reduced 29 percent in the United States. Reason Magazine Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey points out that in 2000, levels of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide in the air had been reduced by over 75 percent, while airborne dust and smoke had been similarly reduced by over half of what they were halfway through 20th century (http://reason.com/0005/fe.rb.earth.shtml).

So the prophets of doom were wrong - and they still are. The inherent nature of human civilization does not make it incompatible with the planet that sustains it. The human race is not the parasitic entity that it thought itself to be when it forged Earth Day out of its own self-disgust. As our technology and affluence grow, so does the positive prognosis for our planet.

Advances in human civilization account for the failure of both population explosion and pollutant technology to spark the popular environmentalists' much-anticipated post-1970s cataclysm. The genetic engineering of grains and improved agricultural methods enabled by a world of growing wealth have allowed the world's food supply to far exceed expectations and outpace population growth. As the nations of the world have become more industrialized, they have become more educated and aware of their natural environment. This increase in knowledge, coupled with awareness, has allowed for the development of cleaner, more efficient technologies that have led to the substantial reduction in both air and water pollution that we see today relative to the 1970s.

The environmental problems that face the Earth today are serious, but they are not the terminal cancer that many hype them to be. We still must work to use the intelligence and environmental awareness that our civilization allows us. Achieving even cleaner energy technologies, greater resource conservation and more efficient waste management are formidable challenges that face us in the next century. But they are challenges that we can meet, and that we will meet. Overzealous environmentalists do not give human ingenuity its due - armed with the fruits of a growing civilization, our future never has looked brighter.

(Anthony Dick is a Cavalier Daily associate editor. He can be reached at adick@cavalierdaily.com.)

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