A skeptical look at Earth Day
IPN Opinion article
The Providence Journal (RI, USA)
On April 22, 1970, participants at the first National Environmental Teach-in listened to sermons about the dangers of increasing human numbers, nuclear Armageddon, pesticides, garbage and various other alleged perils. Although many of these fears had been brewing for years, it was the genius of the organizers of Earth Day to bring them all together under one apocalyptic umbrella.
Forty years on, what impact has it had? Some of the harms were real and actions taken to reduce these have benefited both us and the environment. The smogs then prevalent in many U.S. cities likely had harmful health effects and the legislation to control emissions, which began before 1970 but was accelerated afterwards, helped clean up the air.
But many of the worst fears promoted by environmentalists turned out to be baseless.The widespread famines envisaged by population alarmists such as Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren simply did not materialize. The global incidence of famine has actually fallen dramatically in the past 60 years: From 1990 to 2009, there were fewer than 10,000 recorded deaths from famine; by contrast, in 1970-1989 more than 65,000 succumbed; and between 1950 and 1969 over 1.5 million died.
Nevertheless, Ehrlich won a MacArthur Genius Award and Holdren is now one of Obama’s key science advisers.Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” whose title alludes to the alleged impact of pesticides on bird species, turned out to be more fiction than fact. While some raptor species were probably harmed by overuse of DDT, the majority of birds were not impacted dramatically by any pesticide.
Ironically, many of the technologies feared by proponents of the first Earth Day have turned out to be environmentally benign.
Take herbicides, for instance. These chemicals enable farmers to kill weeds that would otherwise compete with crops for nutrients. They also enable no-till farming, which reduces soil erosion. Had policymakers followed the advice of the environmental alarmists and banned the use of herbicides, they would have increased crop losses, driven up the cost of food, reduced the amount of land available for species conservation, and dramatically increased soil losses due to erosion.
Yet, even today, some environmental groups are seeking to outlaw chemical herbicides. The NRDC (founded 1970), for example, is pushing for a ban on atrazine, an inexpensive, off-patent herbicide that has been used without harm to humans for over 40 years. Never mind that atrazine provides huge environmental benefits through increased yields and reduced soil erosion. It seems no synthetic chemical can ever provide enough benefits to outweigh hypothetical risks.
The absurdity of targeting such hypothetical risks is made clear by Bruce Ames, a leading expert on cancer and aging and among the most cited scientists in all fields. Ames contrasts the vast amount of carcinogens naturally present in foods with the minuscule amount contributed by synthetic chemicals.
For example, coffee contains over 1,000 chemicals and of those tested more than half are rodent carcinogens. A single cup of coffee contains more carinogens than are found in the residues of synthetic pesticides on all the fruit and vegetables a person eats in a year. Ames, who is now in his eighties, starts every day with an espresso.
The tragedy is that there are genuine environmental problems that must be addressed but few environmental groups are focused on them. Perhaps the most significant is the growing shortage of water. Farmers in the U.S., China, India and other countries are using water at unsustainable rates, lowering water tables and threatening future production.
Technology offers potential solutions such as drip-feed irrigation, which can halve water use. However, most farmers pay too little for their water from public systems, or are unable to trade water they own, so invest too little in conservation.
As Earth Day enters middle age, it is time for the environmental movement to rethink its priorities and the policies it promotes. It should stop reactively attacking chemicals that are beneficial to humans and the environment on the basis of studies that have no relevance to human risk. Instead, it should focus on real problems, including overabstraction of water, and highlight genuine solutions to those problems.
Julian Morris is executive director of International Policy Network, an independent economic-development think-tank based in London.