- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2000

''If it had been the purpose of human activity on earth to bring the planet to the edge of ruin, no more efficient mechanism could have been invented than the market economy." So wrote one environmentalist critic a few years ago in what has become a standard left-wing critique of U.S. efforts to solve the country's environmental problems. The problem, in short, is not the smog, the tainted drinking water, the leaking landfills; those are just symptoms of the larger problem: a free-market system whose drive for profit necessarily has a deadly byproduct, pollution. According to this logic, doing away with private enterprise is the first step to cleaning up the environment.

Alas for the critics, three decades after the first Earth Day, free markets are still operating in the United States. Worse, at least from their perspective, all the evidence suggests that this country's environment is getting steadily cleaner.

Consider air quality. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), data collected through 1997 (the last year for which EPA statistics are available) shows that since 1970, there have been "notable reductions in air quality concentrations and emissions." Over that 27-year period, concentrations of six key pollutants the agency tracks have fallen as follows: sulfur dioxides, 66.7 percent; nitrogen oxides, 37.9 percent; ozone, 30.9 percent; carbon monoxide, 66.4 percent; particulates, 25.5 percent; lead, 97.3 percent. And they fell even as U.S. population grew 31 percent and vehicle miles traveled increased 127 percent.

With respect to other areas, there has been a 42 percent decline in releases of toxic chemicals since 1988, soil erosion is dropping by about 40 million tons a year and forest land in this country (and other industrialized countries) has been increasing annually for the last 40 years. For all the complaints about sprawl in the United States, urbanized areas constitute just 5.6 percent of the United States, excluding Hawaii and Alaska. There's still an awful lot of room out there.

Sure there have been improvements, environmentalists say, but it took government to achieve them, in particular the 1970 Clean Air Act. Not necessarily. In some, perhaps many, cases, air quality was already improving. Air quality monitoring in 21 urban areas shows that the mean annual average of sulfur dioxide levels fell about 40 percent between 1962 and 1969. Writes economist Paul Portney of the Washington-based group, Resources for the Future, it is "extremely difficult to isolate the effects of regulatory policies on air quality, as distinct from the effects of other potentially important factors" because "some measures of air quality were improving at an impressive rate before 1970."

All of this information is available in the recent publication of the "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators 2000" by the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. The group argues the results show that far from hindering environmental progress, free markets have helped make it possible. The wealthier a society becomes, the higher its standards for environmental quality. Rich societies can afford the costs of cleaning up the air and water. Affluent peoples have less tolerance for effluent.

"The pessimism that often accompanies environmentalism," says the institute, "is ill-suited for both the naturally optimistic American character and the realities of the modern world, where economic growth and progress are the hope, and not the threat, of the future. The lesson of the past century has been that environmental progress depends on economic and technological progress, which are best produced by dynamic markets." In other words, the environment can and does profit from free enterprise.

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