Earth Day, 1991
Twenty years ago, the environmental movement had just begun to break into the mainstream. With environmentalism now securely established as all-American institutions, is the world better? And what will matter most in determining the state of the environment 20 years from now?
I posed these questions to five diverse organizations known for their environmental expertise: Cultural Survival (concerned with indigenous peoples and their homelands), the Wilderness Society (concerned with wilderness, obviously), the Rainforest Action Network (also obvious), the Competitive Enterprise Institute (supportive of free enterprise, and run by a former EPA senior policy analyst), and the Cato Institute (dedicated to "peace, free enterprise, and individual rights").
In terms of pollution reduction, says the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor, we've come a long way, with "major declines in air pollution and a moderate decrease in water pollution. Open dumps have been shut down, contaminated waste sites largely contained, and newer, cleaner disposal facilities brought on line."
Most environmentalists credit the tremendous advances in pollution reduction to the broad scheme of federal anti-pollution laws enacted in the last 20 years, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Taylor disagrees, and contends that progress has come "not because of, but in spite of, our federal war on pollution." He quotes a recent study by the liberal Brookings Institution, which concludes: "every tabulation since 1972 shows less relative improvement than we achieved in the 1960s."
Jonathan Adler, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, also credits "market pressures" for environmental progress. As evidence of the economic beneficence of free markets, Adler points out that "the United States is experiencing tremendous net forest growth." He observes that market forces, such as higher oil prices, "have encouraged increased efficiency, resulting in lower levels of emissions."
There is no serious debate that air and water pollution are much lower than 20 years ago, and energy efficiency is much higher. Are our forests also better off, as Adler argues?
Many environmentalists believe that more forest acreage (while certainly better than more parking lot acreage) is not an accurate measure of the health of the forest ecosystem. Too many large commercial forests are ecologically sterile, consisting of little more than tree farms growing one strain of trees, all of which are the same age, and which consequently provide little of the arboreal diversity necessary for a healthy ecosystem.
Accordingly, groups such as the Wilderness Society aim to protect ecosystems in their natural state. Society spokesman Ben Beach notes that in the last 20 years, 84 million acres of national forests and other federal public lands have been added to the National Wilderness Preservation system. Formerly threatened by potential timber, mining, or ski resort development, these lands will remain forever wild.
The passage of the Endangered Species Act, which forbids human actions which could drive a species to extinction, counts as another important environment success in which the Wilderness Society played a major role.
For the indigenous peoples who live in the world's rainforests, environmental problems have grown much worse, says Cultural Survival. For example, in the Sarawak region of Malaysia, a third of the rainforest has been destroyed in the last 30 years. Of the 10,000 Penan tribespeople who lived in the forest, only 450 remain.
Rainforest Action Network leader Randy Hayes takes the Cultural Survival observation a few steps further. Looking not at the last 20 years, but at the last 500 -- since the beginning of the European conquest of the Western hemisphere, Hayes finds a "period of cultural and ecological destruction comparable to Hitler's atrocities in World War II." Nor have the horrors ended, for "Even to this day the original peoples are threatened, killed, and increasingly marginalized from their ancestral domain."
While few people in the last 500 years of Western hemisphere history have been as consummately evil as Hitler, it is a historical fact that Hitler considered the American seizure of the continent and destruction of Indians to be role-models for his own plans.
And what of the next 20 years? On the anti-pollution front, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute concur that the last thing we need is more centralized government regulation. Analogizing to the collapse of European communism and the failure of the Great Society's "war on poverty," Cato's Taylor predicts that the next 20 years will see the environmental debate focus on free-market mechanisms for environmental protection.
Instead of having the government closely regulate each individual business, and determine that certain levels of pollution are "acceptable," Taylor would allow anyone whose land or body is contaminated by someone else's pollution -- no matter how low the pollution level -- to sue the polluter. Replacing government-set levels of permissible pollution with a citizen right to sue for any pollution would be a better mechanism of achieving the goal of zero discharge, he believes.
The CEI's Adler looks to improved technology as a way to get rid of the centralized pollution control bureaucracy. In the next few years, "remote sensing" devices will be able to monitor the pollution caused by every single vehicle that passes by a particular point on a highway. Thus, we could abandon expensive government-mandated emissions inspections and testing. Instead, remote sensors would monitor the highways for polluting cars, and owners of cars with excessive emissions would be ordered to fix the cars, and pay a fine.
The Wilderness Society's Ben Beach worries that "pressure on public lands and their wildlife is increasing steadily." Our goal over the next 20 years should be to add 85 million acres to the wilderness system, including the California Desert, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Utah's canyonlands, and national forests in the Rockies.
At the same time, we should phase out the one billion dollars a year of annual federal subsidies that support economically inefficient mining, logging, and grazing cattle on public land. Beach urges vigorous support the Endangered Species Act (coming up for Congressional review soon), in order to protect the grizzly bear, spotted owl, a full range of salmon, and other species that are not as well know. Finally, we should "do whatever we can to safeguard important ecosystems like the Everglades, northern New England forests, and the ancient forests of the Northwest."
In regards to the plight of indigenous peoples and their habitat, Cultural Survival urges that Americans regard them not as victims in need of charity, but instead seek "a collaboration with them as partners."
Having seen how much worse so many things have gotten in the last 500 years, Rainforest Action Network's Randy Hayes suggests that we start out with a 500 year plan for how to fix things. He looks to major social and technical transformations that will change our relationship with the earth: more bicycles, increased automobile fuel efficiency, more and more electricity produced by wind, a tripling of lighting system efficiency, and greater schooling in ecology. From these ambitious plans for the next 500 years, Hayes works backward, to determine the intermediate steps we need to take to achieve our goals.
Some of those steps could be taken tomorrow. Why not ban use of rainforest wood in disposable chopsticks? Is the pleasure from eating with wood rather than plastic chopsticks really worth destroying part of a rainforest?
There's no single path to a better environment, and that's why all of the groups which participated in this 20-year review project have something constructive to contribute to the debate. To find out more about what you can do to help whichever groups appeal most to you, contact them at the addresses listed below:
Cato Institute: 224 Second St. SE, Wash., DC 20003, (202) 546-0200.
Competitive Enterprise Institute: 233 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Suite 200, Wash., DC 20003, (202) 547-1010.
Cultural Survival: 53A Church St., Cambridge, MA 01238, (617) 496-8786.
Rainforest Action Network: 300 Broadway #28, SF, CA 94133, (415) 398-4404.
Wilderness Society: 900 Seventeenth St. N.W., Wash., DC 20006-2596, (202) 833-2300.