Earth Day Redux


Forget about celebrating today's 32nd Earth Day by jet-skiing in a national park. That sort of fun was shut down last week by a court ruling. (Always quick to add to the quantity of hot air in the atmosphere, the U.S. Senate is marking the day with a debate about global warming.)

Still, there's a lot to be happy about. By virtually every measure, the environment is doing far better than it was in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, when Life reported as fact that "in a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution." In that era of Crying Indian public service announcements, dead rivers and lakes, and Charlton Heston message movies, it seemed as if the end was indeed nigh.

Three decades later, water is purer, air is cleaner, and forests are greener. As Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey underscored on the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, such apocalyptic predictions have not simply been proven wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Why were they so mistaken? The short answer is that the basic assumption of such predictions is off-base. Back in the (Earth) day, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdern created the I=PAT equation, in which impact equals population multiplied by affluence multiplied by technology. As a result, more of anything–of people, of money, of machines–meant more environmental degradation by definition. Among the things Ehrlich, Holdern, and others who utilize a similar calculus in predicting the fatal clouding of the big blue marble, failed to account for is that both technology and people tend to get cleaner as they get more affluent.

Human ingenuity remains what Julian Simon, the late economist who won an infamous public bet with Erhlich, called the "ultimate resource," even and perhaps especially when it comes to imagining the worst.