Saturday, April 24, 2004

It’s not easy being green. Last Thursday was the 34th annual “Earth Day” observance, and, like other progeny of a decade characterized by Robert Ringer’s best-selling “Looking Out for No. 1,” it is beginning to show its age.

Gallup’s annual Earth Day Poll (was it printed on recycled paper?) found the environment, which once ranked high on the list of concerns for millions of Americans, now resembles a baseball team fallen on hard times.

According to Gallup, environmental issues are next to last on a list of people’s concerns, finishing just above race relations. Worse news for tree-huggers, 44 percent of those polled said economic concerns should take precedence over protection of the environment. That figure is up from 23 percent in 2000 and 19 percent in 1990.

One of those responsible for shifting opinion to a more balanced relationship between business and the environment is Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Founded 20 years ago at least in part to defend against the more extreme of “the Earth is your Mother” crowd, CEI has brought economic reality, sound science and an understanding of comparative risks to what was, for a while, a mostly one-sided debate.

Mr. Smith, who began his counterrevolution in 1984 at his kitchen table, has solid credentials. A former policy analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Smith became disaffected when he saw the environment elevated to near religious status with “congregations” full of Earth worshippers.

No one who has ever seen a polluted river, or smelled air fouled by factories and cars, or viewed litter by the road could ever be against the environment or in favor of filth.

But too many of those collectively known as “environmentalists” went too far, choking and inhibiting progress in the name of a pristine cleanliness that will never be achieved so long as humans walk the Earth. Anyone who has been greeted in a motel room with a sign asking you to reuse your towel for the sake of the environment is reminded of how far the Earth-first crowd has brought us.

Mr. Smith helped slow the regulatory juggernaut hampering progress and growth and “polluting” the economy. On another issue, drugs and the sluggishness of bringing them to market where they can help people, Mr. Smith almost single-handedly forced the Food and Drug Administration to speed its tedious drug-approval process.

Success with the environmental movement and the FDA bureaucracy are not bad for an outfit whose budget last year was just above $3 million. Compare that to the Environmental Defense Fund with a $44.6 million budget, Friends of the Earth ($4.8 million), Union of Concerned Scientists ($9.2 million), Natural Resources Defense Council ($46 million), Public Citizen ($10 million), the Center for Science in the Public Interest ($15 million) and Greenpeace ($20 million).

People like Mr. Smith once were celebrated and their example taught to the next generation. They were the real consumer advocates who stood on the traditions we promoted before people became victims and government and regulations, not individuals and liberty, became supreme.

Earth Day has become a symbol for those who mostly place America last and who believe human beings are the problem, not the solution to problems. Such people are embarrassed by this country’s wealth and power. They think by tearing down their own country they build something better in its place. Yet it seems all they have built up is a list of regulations to stifle the achievers, the entrepreneurs and the visionaries.

Is that too harsh? Listen to the Earth-firsters. Watch their joyless faces. There’s not much positive in their speech, and they have little to celebrate (except when they defeat a political enemy, which now they do with less often).

Fred Smith is smiling. He has much to show for 20 years of commitment to an objective that has benefited our nation and the Earth far more than the leftovers from the Age of Aquarius.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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