The environment is getting better....
Yes, for years things have been improving...
The warnings of doom and tidings of gloom have been with us since 1970, and have not abated. There is no evidence in the press or on the bookshelves that anything has ever gotten better. So logically, there is something wrong here. If all the trends have been so bad for so long, why are we living longer than ever before, and not suffering from the mass shortages, major wars, starvation and black skies that have been foretold for decades?
Actually there is nothing wrong with the logic, it's the facts that are out of whack. Most things related to the environment and public health have actually been getting better, not worse, ever since Canada, the United States, and the other western countries began enacting regulatory legislation in the 1970s.
What do I mean by most things? Air pollution, water pollution, nutrition, health and lifespan, rescue of endangered species, infant mortality, agriculture, poverty, human rights and freedom to name a few.
What has happened is quite strange. The very environmental organizations and activists who were responsible for helping make such improvements possible absolutely refuse to admit they have in fact been victorious on so many issues. They, and all of the media, and now the entire culture, are stuck in a self-perpetuating and totally false aura of doom.
The facts about where we are now compared to where we have been, can be found in my 2007 book, Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet. Thanks to the Bush administration, the last decade was probably the worst for environment and public health policy for quite some time. Despite that, the improvements that started in the 1970s have continued. Three (of the many) areas of continued improvement during the past 10 years are: air pollution, toxic exposures, and endangered species.
Concentrations of the major toxic air pollutants have all declined in North America during the bad decade of the naughts. Carbon monoxide air levels are less than half what they were in 2000. Sulfur dioxide has decreased by one-third from what it was at the beginning of the decade. Particulates have decreased by 20 per cent, nitrogen dioxide by 30 per cent, and ozone by 15 per cent.
What about carbon dioxide, the evil culprit behind global warming? We certainly know that CO2 emissions keep spiralling out of control, right? Well, no, wrong. Carbon dioxide emissions have been steadily declining in the past five years.
We have heard a lot about body burdens of dangerous chemicals. The well-known journalist, Anderson Cooper, was found to contain a number of chemicals in his blood stream. Aside from the fact that the levels of such chemicals were tens or hundreds of times lower than minimum toxic doses, does this raise the question of a new and terrible trend of increasing chemical contamination of our bodies? In reality, the reverse is true. Our chemical body burdens have been decreasing consistently over time since the 1970s. Dieldrin is present in our blood at levels 10 times lower than it once was, PCBs are present from three to five times less and DDT is found at 15 times lower concentrations.
The reason for these decreases is simple. We have been subject to much less chemical exposure than we were decades ago thanks to regulations prohibiting toxic chemical releases into the environment. The best example of this is lead. Since the ban on lead in gasoline and other products, lead in human blood has steadily declined to levels over 100 times less in 2000 than were found in the 1980s. And this decrease continued over the past decade, falling by another 35 per cent from 2000 to 2009.
Everyone knows that biodiversity is doomed on the planet. We have been told that we are losing thousands of species every day. No one knows where this figure comes from, but it doesn't matter. Clearly we are wiping out all of our wildlife, and we are the relentless, uncaring engines of mass extinction.
Actually, no, we are not. The heroic efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act, have been incredibly successful, a fact known probably only to the employees of the service and their immediate families. Of the thousands of animals, birds, flowers, insects and plants in the U.S. that have been listed as endangered or threatened, a total of seven have actually gone extinct. And none of these extinctions occurred in the past two decades.
In contrast, bald eagles, crocodiles, grey wolves, river otters, beavers, Lake Erie water snakes, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, Robbins' cinquefoil (a relative of the rose), Aleutian Canada geese, large-flowered skullcaps, Maguire daisies, flying squirrels, grizzly bears, brown pelicans, Hawaiian hawks, silvery minnows, short-tailed albatross, razorback suckers, Houston toads, black-footed ferrets, San Joaquin kit fox, North Atlantic right whales, and others are recovering, and many have been taken off the endangered list. If this comes as a surprise to you, if you think you missed the headlines, don't worry, there were no headlines. Which doesn't make it less true.