Earth Day, Then and Now

The planet's future has never looked better. Here's why.

Thirty Years ago, 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Fifth Avenue in New York City was closed to automobiles as 100,000 people joined in concerts, lectures, and street theater. More than 2,000 colleges and universities across America paused their anti-war protests to rally instead against pollution and population growth. Even Congress recessed, acknowledging that the environment was now on a political par with motherhood. Since that first Earth Day, the celebrations have only gotten bigger, if somewhat less dramatic: The organizers of Earth Day 2000, to be held April 22, expect 500 million people around the globe to participate in celebrations, workshops, and demonstrations. This year's theme is "clean energy" and the master of ceremonies for the big celebration on the Washington Mall is none other than Leonardo Di Caprio.

The first Earth Day was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, the Democratic senator from Wisconsin. The moment was obviously ripe. Nelson had proposed a national "teach-in" on the environment in September 1969 and only eight months later, everything was in place for the single largest national demonstration in American history. Dramatic events such as the Cuyahoga River bursting into flame in 1969, the blowout of an oil well off Santa Barbara, and the "death" of Lake Erie due to pollution all fed Americans' concerns. The sorry state of America's environment hit home for me when, as a 16-year-old high school student from the mountains of Virginia, I visited George Washington's home, Mt. Vernon, on a marching band trip. Bobbing in the nearby Potomac was a sign warning visitors not to come in contact with the water.

Earth Day 1970 provoked a torrent of apocalyptic predictions. "We have about five more years at the outside to do something," ecologist Kenneth Watt declared to a Swarthmore College audience on April 19, 1970. Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that "civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind." "We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation," wrote Washington University biologist Barry Commoner in the Earth Day issue of the scholarly journal Environment. The day after Earth Day, even the staid New York Times editorial page warned, "Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction." Very Apocalypse Now.

Three decades later, of course, the world hasn't come to an end; if anything, the planet's ecological future has never looked so promising. With half a billion people suiting up around the globe for Earth Day 2000, now is a good time to look back on the predictions made at the first Earth Day and see how they've held up and what we can learn from them. The short answer: The prophets of doom were not simply wrong, but spectacularly wrong.

More important, many contemporary environmental alarmists are similarly mistaken when they continue to insist that the Earth's future remains an eco-tragedy that has already entered its final act. Such doomsters not only fail to appreciate the huge environmental gains made over the past 30 years, they ignore the simple fact that increased wealth, population, and technological innovation don't degrade and destroy the environment. Rather, such developments preserve and enrich the environment. If it is impossible to predict fully the future, it is nonetheless possible to learn from the past. And the best lesson we can learn from revisiting the discourse surrounding the very first Earth Day is that passionate concern, however sincere, is no substitute for rational analysis.

Soylent Greens

Imminent global famine caused by the explosion of the "population bomb" was the big issue on Earth Day 1970. Then--and now--the most prominent prophet of population doom was Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich. Dubbed "ecology's angry lobbyist" by Life magazine, the gloomy Ehrlich was quoted everywhere. "Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make," he confidently declared in an interview with then-radical journalist Peter Collier in the April 1970 Mademoiselle. "The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years."

"Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born," wrote Ehrlich in an essay titled "Eco-Catastrophe!," which ran in the special Earth Day issue of the radical magazine Ramparts. "By...[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s." Ehrlich sketched out his most alarmist scenario for the Earth Day issue of The Progressive, assuring readers that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the "Great Die-Off."

Although Ehrlich was certainly the most strident doomster, he was far from alone in his famine forecasts. "It is already too late to avoid mass starvation," declared Denis Hayes, the chief organizer for Earth Day, in the Spring 1970 issue of The Living Wilderness. In that same issue, Peter Gunter, a professor at North Texas State University, wrote, "Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions....By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine" (emphasis in original). Ehrlich and others were openly contemptuous of the "Green Revolution," underway in countries such as India and Pakistan, that had already nearly doubled crop yields in developing nations between 1965 and 1970. Ehrlich sniffed that such developments meant nothing, going so far as to predict that "the Green Revolution...is going to turn brown." Such fears took form in such popular Zeitgeist movies as Soylent Green (1973), which envisioned a future of hungry masses jammed into overcrowded cities.

The Soylent Green crowd didn't simply predict mass starvation. They argued that even trying to feed so many people was itself a recipe for disaster. As Lester Brown, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture agronomist who would later become far more prominent as the founder of the Worldwatch Institute, put it in Scientific American, "There is growing doubt that the agricultural ecosystem will be able to accommodate both the anticipated increase of the human population to seven billion by the end of the century and the universal desire of the world's hungry for a better diet. The central question is no longer `Can we produce enough food?' but `What are the environmental consequences of attempting to do so?'"

Even if somehow famine were avoided, what would the world's population be in 2000? Peter Gunter predicted 7.2 billion. Ehrlich foresaw that "by the end of the century we'll have well over 7 billion people if something isn't done." Brown agreed that "world population at the end of the century is expected to be twice the 3.5 billion of today." In the April 21, 1970, Look, Rockefeller University biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rene Dubos made the shocking suggestion that, "To some overcrowded populations, the bomb may one day no longer seem a threat, but a release."

Time has not been gentle with these prophecies. It's absolutely true that far too many people remain poor and hungry in the world--800 million people are still malnourished and nearly 1.2 billion live on less than a dollar a day--but we have not seen mass starvation around the world in the past three decades. Where we have seen famines, such as in Somalia and Ethiopia, they are invariably the result of war and political instability. Indeed, far from turning brown, the Green Revolution has never been so verdant. Food production has handily outpaced population growth and food today is cheaper and more abundant than ever before. Since 1970, the amount of food per person globally has increased by 26 percent, and as the International Food Policy Research Institute reported in October 1999, "World market prices for wheat, maize, and rice, adjusted for inflation, are the lowest they have been in the last century." According to the World Bank's World Development Report 2000, food production increased by 60 percent between 1980 and 1997. At the same time, the amount of land devoted to growing crops has barely increased over the past 30 years, meaning that millions of acres have been spared for nature--acres that would have been plowed down had agricultural productivity lagged the way Ehrlich and others believed it would.

What's the world population? Rather than 7 billion people inhabiting the earth by 2000, there are 6 billion--nearly 30 percent fewer than predicted. That's because total fertility (the number of children a woman has over the course of her lifetime) has been dropping nearly everywhere on the planet since 1970. In fact, it has dropped from around 6 children per woman in the 1960s to around 2.8 today--and shows no signs of stopping. Total fertility rates for 79 countries, including the United States, are below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. If present trends continue, it looks like the U.N. low-variant population growth projection is likely, which means that world population will like-ly peak at around 8 billion in 2040 and then begin to decline. It is true that the AIDS pandemic has cut average life expectancy in more than 30 countries since 1990, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite AIDS, however, the World Health Organization expects life expectancy in the developing countries to increase from 65 years to 73 years by 2020. (It's worth noting that any effective treatment for AIDS--a vaccine, say--will most likely emerge from laboratories and pharmaceutical companies, two stock villains in the standard environmentalist morality play, in the rich countries.)

Where did the doomsters go wrong? They assumed that overpopulation drives world hunger. To the extent that such conditions exist in certain places, the real culprit was--and is--poverty. "The images evoked by the term overpopulation--hungry families, squalid, overcrowded living conditions, early death--are real enough in the modern world, but these are properly described as problems of poverty," explains Harvard population researcher Nicholas Eberstadt. "Poverty, like all other possible human attributes, is represented in individual members of a population. It is an elementary lapse in logic to conclude that poverty is a `population problem' simply because it exists."

Polluted Thinking

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  • ||

    Lovely piece:-)
    and writing NOW in 2010 I see the same hysteria and Erlich, Holdren, and Hansen STILL predicting the end of the world and population control.
    wish THEY could be controlled and kept away from the public, Gores their next best mate.
    shows no matter How much Proof these people are Liars and Idiots the chance of Money and Fame keeps the SCAM going.
    Humanity may just"Stupid" itself out of existance!

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    The most significant environmental catastrophe of the past 100 years was environmental Lead, and it was resolved by the gradual elimination of Lead from industry with absolutely no help from the enviro-weenies.

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