Earth Day in the Balance
I was delighted to read Ronald Bailey's "Earth Day: Then and Now" (May). I was teaching high school economics during the original Earth Day. Caught up in the hubris of the 1970 Earth Day, I was relieved of teaching duties for a period of time to develop a senior high school course in environmental economics. I fell hook, line, and sinker for the scenarios of Ehrlich, Commoner, and other doomsters.
I wrote and taught the course for three years until it was quite clear they were very wrong--that as a matter of fact the earth's store of proven resources was increasing rather than being depleted. It was also true that the wealth creation from increased production was contributing to improving the environment. I decided to drop the course and roll a few of its good ideas into my economics course.
Walter J. Nelson
I was puzzled by Ronald Bailey's "Earth Day: Then and Now." He tried to show that the state of the environment is improving yet overlooked some important points, such as the effects of increased population on food production and of increased food production on the environment. He says the rates of extinction, deforestation, and population growth are decreasing. To me, these things mean not good news, merely less of the bad news.
What are these environmental gains, preservation, and enrichment Mr. Bailey speaks of? The only thing the environment seems to need to be "preserved" against is our interference. The environment is not a garden, to be "enriched" by human weeding and pruning, but a living system that humans are part of. And what time period is it in which "the planet's future has never looked better"? The time since the Industrial Revolution? Since the Ice Age? Since humans evolved?
Overall, the article gave me a slightly better understanding of the state of the environment and slightly more hope for the future. But I just can't bring myself yet to don a nice happy smiley face for the occasion.
Silver Spring, MD
Libertarian articles about the environment always seem to involve logging, ranching, fishing, or perhaps water rights to the Colorado River. For most of us, though, the first environmental worries that come to mind are dirty air and dirty water. I have read libertarian publications for years and have encountered (or can extrapolate) plausible nongovernmental solutions to just about every public policy issue I can think of except for these ultimate "tragedies of the commons."
Ronald Bailey does not really topple his own straw man assertion that "doomsters will claim whatever environmental progress has been made over the past 30 years is only a result of the warnings that they sounded." Surely on at least some issues "they were right all along" in bringing enough attention to bear on environmental problems to quicken the pace of their resolution. Mr. Bailey acknowledges, for example, that "part of the answer [to air quality improvement] lies in emissions targets set by federal, state, and local governments." In the face of continuing opposition from industry, politicians didn't dream those up on their own.
Cost-effectively or not, as rapidly as possible or not, correctly targeted or not, government prodded by zealots has cleaned up our environment--an outcome that most of us, presumably including Mr. Bailey, would agree is worthwhile. My challenge for Mr. Bailey or anyone else: What is the libertarian alternative?