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Pollution was the other big issue on Earth Day 1970. Smog choked many American cities and sludge coated the banks of many rivers. People were also worried that we were poisoning the biosphere and ourselves with dangerous pesticides. DDT, which had been implicated in the decline of various bird species, including the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, and the brown pelican, would soon be banned in the United States. Students wearing gas masks buried cars and internal combustion engines as symbols of our profligate and polluting consumer society. The Great Lakes were in bad shape and Lake Erie was officially "dead," its fish killed because oxygen supplies had been depleted by rot-ting algae blooms that had themselves been fed by organic pollutants from factories and municipal sewage. Pesticides draining from the land were projected to kill off the phytoplankton in the oceans, eventually stopping oxygen production.
In January 1970, Life reported, "Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support...the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution...by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half...." Ecologist Kenneth Watt told Time that, "At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it's only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable." Barry Commoner cited a National Research Council report that had estimated "that by 1980 the oxygen demand due to municipal wastes will equal the oxygen content of the total flow of all the U.S. river systems in the summer months." Translation: Decaying organic pollutants would use up all of the oxygen in America's rivers, causing freshwater fish to suffocate.
Of course, the irrepressible Ehrlich chimed in, predicting in his Mademoiselle interview that "air pollution...is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone." In Ramparts, Ehrlich sketched a scenario in which 200,000 Americans would die in 1973 during "smog disasters" in New York and Los Angeles.
So has air pollution gotten worse? Quite the contrary. In the most recent National Air Quality Trends report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency--itself created three decades ago partly as a response to Earth Day celebrations--had this to say: "Since 1970, total U.S. population increased 29 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased 121 percent, and the gross domestic product (GDP) increased 104 percent. During that same period, notable reductions in air quality concentrations and emissions took place." Since 1970, ambient levels of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide have fallen by 75 percent, while total suspended particulates like smoke, soot, and dust have been cut by 50 percent since the 1950s.
In 1988, the particulate standard was changed to account for smaller particles. Even under this tougher standard, particulates have declined an additional 15 percent. Ambient ozone and nitrogen dioxide, prime constituents of smog, are both down by 30 percent since the 1970s. According to the EPA, the total number of days with air pollution alerts dropped 56 percent in Southern California and 66 percent in the remaining major cities in the United States between 1988 and 1997. Since at least the early 1990s, residents of infamously smogged-in Los Angeles have been able to see that their city is surrounded by mountains.
Why has air quality improved so dramatically? Part of the answer lies in emissions targets set by federal, state, and local governments. But these need to be understood in the twin contexts of rising wealth and economic efficiency. As a Department of Interior analyst concluded after surveying emissions in 1999, "Cleaner air is a direct consequence of better technologies and the enormous and sustained investments that only a rich nation could have sunk into developing, installing, and operating these technologies." Today, American businesses, consumers, and government agencies spend about $40 billion annually on air pollution controls.
It is now evident that countries undergo various environmental transitions as they become wealthier. Fortune's special "ecology" edition in February 1970 was far more prescient than the doomsters when it noted, "If pollution is the brother of affluence, concern about pollution is affluence's child." In 1992, a World Bank analysis found that concentrations of particulates and sulfur dioxide peak at per capita incomes of $3,280 and $3,670, respectively. Once these income thresholds are crossed, societies start to purchase increased environmental amenities such as clean air and water.
In the U.S., air quality has been improving rapidly since before the first Earth Day--and before the federal Clean Air Act of 1970. In fact, ambient levels of particulates and sulfur dioxide have been declining ever since accurate records have been kept. Between 1960 and 1970, for instance, particulates declined by 25 percent; sulfur dioxide decreased by 35 percent between 1962 and 1970. More concretely, it takes 20 new cars to produce the same emissions that one car produced in the 1960s.
Similar trends can be found when it comes to water pollution. The warning sign is gone from the Potomac and I can swim and fish in that river again. Lake Erie once again supports a $600 million fishing industry, and an upscale shopping and entertainment district now lines the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. The EPA estimates that between 60 percent and 70 percent of lakes, rivers, and streams meet state quality goals. That's up from about 30 percent to 40 percent 30 years ago.
Since 1972, the United States has invested more than $540 billion in water pollution control efforts, according to the Pacific Research Center. In 1972, only 85 million Americans were served by sewage treatment plants. Since then, some 14,000 municipal waste treatment plants have been built and 173 million Americans are served by them. Similar air and water quality trends can be found in other developed countries as well.
Most environmental problems occur in what are called "open-access commons"--that is, any member of the public may use the resource without paying anyone else for it. Typically, open-access commons still exist as relics of a time when the resource was abundant relative to the number of people using it. If only you and a couple of neighbors lived along a river, you could all dump your sewage in the river because it would naturally purify itself. The same goes for forests--homesteaders could chop them down because there were millions of acres more to be had.
With open-access commons, if you don't use the resource for your own benefit, other people will and you'll simply lose out. The prototypical example of an open-access commons is the old-fashioned village sheep meadow. Because everyone in the village has the right to put sheep on the meadow, each villager has an incentive to put extra sheep on the meadow in order to enrich himself. However, if every villager chooses to add sheep, then the meadow will be destroyed by overgrazing and all villagers will suffer the consequences.
In a related way, people dump sewage into rivers or pump smoke into the air because no one "owns" a river or the air in a traditional sense. We might say that the public "owns" rivers and airsheds, but none of us individually has much of an incentive (or an ability) to stop others from emitting excessive pollutants. Such open-access commons are at the center of most instances of environmental problems today, from the deforestation of tropical rainforests to the potential loss of biodiversity to the depletion of open-sea fisheries.
There are two basic ways to address the environmental problems caused by open-access commons. The favored way has been traditional, top-down political regulation, in which an agency prescribes specific pollution-control technology and monitors output. Depending on the situation, this method can score some quick improvements--the shift from leaded to unleaded gasoline had a huge impact on air quality, for instance. But it's more typically slow, costly, and subject to the endless wrangling of interest groups seeking special exemptions and protections. What's more, because it enforces a single standard, it discourages the innovation and experimentation that often lead to new, more environmentally sound ways of doing things. For example, the Clean Air Act effectively mandated that electric utilities use smokestack scrubbers to reduce their sulfur dioxide emissions when other alternatives, such as a switch to burning cleaner coal, would have reduced emissions even further and more cheaply, too.
The other approach to open-access commons harnesses both the creativity of markets and the power of privatization. An overall level of acceptable pollution is set, a market is created through tradeable permits, and then firms are allowed to pursue various means to reach the goal. We find fast, cheap, and efficient environmental improvements where this approach has been tried. In the U.S., for instance, sulfur dioxide emissions have been cut much faster and at less cost since the creation of a (very imperfect) market for such emissions (see "Selling Air Pollution," May 1996). Fisheries in New Zealand and Iceland have dramatically rebounded since they were essentially privatized. And one of the chief reasons that forests are expanding in the U.S. and Europe is because landowners have secure property rights to them. Such gains are not mysterious: If you own a resource, you're far more likely to use it efficiently.