A new Gallup poll shows that the overwhelming majority of Americans believes this country has made at least some progress in dealing with environmental problems since the original Earth Day in 1970. Indeed, 26 percent now believe the United States has made “a great deal of progress” over the past 30 years, up from only 14 percent a decade ago. Their optimism is warranted.
Consider one environmental snapshot. Since the 1970s, the U.S. gross domestic product has doubled while air and water pollution levels have fallen. Another snapshot: The average New Yorker produced more garbage in 1900 than does today’s New Yorker. Such are the advantages of technological innovation, a fancy phrase for “ideas,” that Americans and much of the world can now do far more with far less.
To many of the activists who provided the ideological backdrop for that first Earth Day, such progress was unthinkable. Consider a few other cheery quotes from those times:
* “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now.” Paul Ehrlich, “The Population Bomb,” 1968.
* “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next one hundred years.” Club of Rome, “The Limits to Growth,” 1972.
But much to the disappointment of the alarmists, the end of the world missed its appointment. To judge from the views of those surveyed in the Gallup poll, many Americans aren’t expecting it any time soon either. How is that in a world of limits, where a growing population must rely on a necessarily finite quantity of natural resources, cannot just survive but thrive?
Writing in an essay titled, “The progress explosion,” (See “Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet” produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute), Ronald Bailey argues that the alarmists have overlooked a peculiarly human resource that never runs out, never pollutes, never consumes and costs nothing: ideas. Ideas, he says, allow people to rearrange resources in such way as to find new and better uses for them. Recall that once upon a time, petroleum wasn’t black gold. It was a nuisance for persons digging water wells. But human imagination turned that nuisance into kerosene, a source of energy that replaced increasingly scarce whale oil. Likewise 50 years ago, silicon was just something one used to make glass. Today it goes into making microchips that run computers and optical fibers used to transfer data over the Internet, which is something else that wasn’t around 30 years ago.
There is no guarantee progress will continue. Democratic governance, free markets and private property rights are all vital to the progress explosion. Governments can slow or even stop it by interfering with any of them. Otherwise the outlook is bright. “Surely,” says Mr. Bailey, “no one believes that humanity has already thought of all the ways to conserve, to find, and to make use of new sources of energy, much less that people have run out of ideas to improve houses, transportation, communications, medicine and farming. As we have seen, as humanity discovers these new recipes and ideas, the opportunities for protecting and improving the natural world also grow.” And ensure that the progress of the next 30 years will be even greater.