National Journal, April 29, 2000
Earth Day came overcast and dreary to Washington last weekend, and the weather wasn't great, either. On Earth Day's 30th anniversary, environmentalists celebrated themselves, and with good reason. As Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, likes to say, we're all environmentalists now. But in the environment itself they found little cause for rejoicing.
"Most environmentalists agree that the green movement is in better shape than it was 30 years ago," wrote Richard Stenger in a CNN.com story that captured the mood pretty well. But the planet? Denis Hayes, the coordinator of the Earth Day celebrations of 1970, 1990, and 2000, told Stenger: "We've made some heroic efforts, but the earth as a whole is in worse shape today than 30 years ago."
Cheer up, environmentalists. You have one of the great American success stories to tell. In June 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire (not for the first time); that river burns no longer, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the proportion of major lakes, rivers, and streams that are safe for fishing and swimming has doubled since 1970 to about 70 percent. Today the only toxic thing about the Potomac River is the view of Rosslyn, Va.
Aggregate emissions of all the major air pollutants are way down since 1970, even though the population has grown by almost a third and vehicle-miles and gross domestic product have more than doubled. Sulfur dioxides and carbon monoxide are down by two-thirds, nitrogen oxides by almost 40 percent, ozone by 30 percent; lead is effectively banished. In the cities, unhealthy-air days are down by more than half, just since 1988. Releases of toxic materials into the environment have declined 42 percent since then; soil erosion falls by about 40 million tons a year; on and on.
"Pollution in all categories has declined," says Gregg Easterbrook, the author of A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism. "And pollution has declined even relative to domestic manufacturing output."
But here is an odd thing: The public doesn't believe it. In March, Environmental Defense (formerly the Environmental Defense Fund) commissioned an Earth Day poll from SWR Worldwide. A resounding majority of the 1,000 adults surveyed, 57 percent, said that U.S. environmental conditions are worse today than 30 years ago; 67 percent agreed that "despite the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, air and water pollution seem to continue to get worse." Young people were even gloomier than older people.
"We were surprised," says Steve Cochran, Environmental Defense's director of strategic communications. "It's clear that people haven't taken much heart in the progress that's been made." Progress? What progress? A September 1999 poll performed by ICR Media for the Foundation for Clean Air Progress found that 61 percent of Americans believe the country's air has grown worse in the past 10 years, and 55 percent believe that the average number of days with serious air pollution has increased.
If you ask other kinds of questions, you get less gloomy responses; but nowhere do you see anything remotely like the sort of optimism that the facts justify. When the Gallup Organization asked in April how much progress the country has made on environmental problems since 1970, 64 percent said "only some" and 9 percent said "hardly any." A Newsweek poll conducted in April by Princeton Research Associates found 52 percent saying the country has made only "minor progress" toward solving environmental problems since the first Earth Day, and 23 percent saying "no progress" or that the problems had actually become worse. Plainly, where the environment is concerned, the public and reality have parted ways.
Why? One reason may be that people believe what they hear from environmentalists and journalists. In a series of studies, the Center for Media and Public Affairs has found that "the news makes environmental problems look worse than the scientific experts believe," according to Robert Lichter, the center's president. Critical stories on government's and businesses' handling of environmental problems vastly outnumber positive ones, the center finds, and stories about impending crises are incessant.
Fueling that tendency are environmentalists themselves. The radical ones have spent the past 30 years gleefully forecasting one apocalypse after another. Mainstream groups are calmer, but they don't go in much for telling you how much cleaner your air is. The environmental community, notes Environmental Defense's Cochran, has always seen its main job as pointing out problems.
That's understandable. You can't convince folks to change the world by telling them that everything is OK. But decades of alarmism have extracted a price. In a roundabout way, environmentalists' gloom has hobbled environmentalism.
In 1998, Resources for the Future, a prominent environmental think tank, published an assessment of American environmental policy. The verdict was quietly scathing. Nine major laws and hundreds of minor ones govern environmental policy-making; the resulting policies are "fragmented," "complex," "disjointed," beset by "rigidity and lack of coherence." Worse, priorities had changed little since the EPA was founded in 1970, with the main focus on water, air, and traditional toxins, even though other problems, such as indoor radon, are now more pressing. "The system is not all that different from the way it was in 1970," says Terry Davies of Resources for the Future, who is an author of the study.
Environmentalism began, under Theodore Roosevelt, as a brawny conservationism. But its rebirth in the 1960s sprang from worries about pesticides and carcinogens and smoggy air and burning rivers. So Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency dedicated themselves to eliminating incremental nanograms of pollutants: microenvironmentalism, to borrow a term from Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Environmental policy became obsessed with cleanliness and chemicals, chasing smaller and smaller quantities of less and less dangerous substances.
That is still what the law is doing, and in many of the same ways. It is fighting the old war with mostly the old tactics. But the world has changed. "The threats to health and safety from air and water are negligible," says Robert W. Crandall, an economist at the Brookings Institution. The environmental movement, unlike environmental policy, has evolved in step with that reality. What primarily worries environmentalists these days is not the microcosm but the macrocosm: big, global issues such as extinction and biodiversity, depleted stratospheric ozone, urban sprawl, rainforest destruction, and, above all, global warming. Movement environmentalists spent much of Earth Day trying to excite the public about warming.
But the public yawns. It stands squarely behind the agenda of the first Earth Day, not the 31st. Gallup finds that the public frets a lot about air and water pollution; worries much less about ozone depletion, rain forests, and habitat loss; and cares hardly a fig for extinction and urban sprawl. At the bottom of the list? Right: global warming. The Environmental Defense poll got similar results, with warming ranked second to last, ahead of only urban sprawl.
In other words, the public's priorities almost perfectly invert the environmental movement's priorities. Perversely, the aspirations of Gore-era environmentalism are now blocked by the public's commitment to Nixon-era environmentalism. Last weekend, while activists celebrated Earth Day 2000, the public celebrated Earth Day 1970 for the 31st time.
And who can blame the public? Americans' capacity for worry is limited, and environmentalists are asking them to worry about everything at once. Air and water are still dangerous, yes, but global warming is even more dangerous—superdangerous! Perhaps inevitably, that message drowns itself out. Ordinary people naturally worry more about the water they drink today than about the polar ice caps in 2050. If, as environmentalists and the media and "Erin Brockovich" remind us, the air and water are still full of poisons, then the agenda of the 1970s is as urgent as ever. And if we're still one breath or sip away from bowel cancer, global warming will have to wait.
So gloom has brought environmentalism to a dead end. To advance, the movement must swallow its pride and concede victory. It has proved expert at giving alarm; now, against its every instinct, it needs to learn to give hope.
The movement, says Environmental Defense's Cochran, should not refrain from telling bad news. But, he says, "you can be more effective encouraging action if you can show progress has been made. Do we need to try harder to mix in the good news, the progress, the reason for hope? I think the answer is yes." The 40th anniversary of Earth Day may be more productive, as well as more fun, if environmentalists paint their record a brighter shade of green.