On Friday, people across the planet celebrated Earth Day. It’s been 52 years since the original Earth Day drew attention to protecting our air, lakes, rivers and forests from pollution and …
On Friday, people across the planet celebrated Earth Day. It’s been 52 years since the original Earth Day drew attention to protecting our air, lakes, rivers and forests from pollution and mismanagement. It effectively raised awareness about an important issue affecting a lot of people — one that people didn’t think about much prior to that day.
Around the same time as that first observance, a growing number of voices took the environmental movement down a very different path. Perhaps among the most prominent of these voices was Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich, whose book “The Population Bomb” predicted widespread death and destruction as a result of population growth. He estimated that by 2020, 4 billion people would die as a result of pollution and starvation.
His predictions, of course, turned out to be astoundingly wrong. Human lifespans have never been longer. Infant mortality rates are at historic lows, and fewer people than ever suffer from malnutrition. Since the 1970s, nearly 4 billion people across the globe have gained access to clean drinking water, and abject poverty rates were cut in half in the past two decades.
Ehrlich’s theories fell apart because they assumed human population patterns would follow that of any other species. It’s a view that ignores the human race’s capacity to adapt and master our environment, and thus make it more livable than it is in its original state. Despite all the data contradicting his theories, Ehlich to this day continues to predict a population apocalypse. He argues he just got the timeline wrong.
If you define “saving the planet” as making it a more livable place for as many people as possible, then we have been enormously successful in that goal. Yet, it’s surprising how quick many environmentalists are to ignore and dismiss these accomplishments.
They seem to have a very different idea of what “saving the planet” means. They lobby for regulations that impede, if not stop, development, which appears to be less about keeping the planet safe for humans and more about keeping it safe from humans. Their ideal state of the environment — what rivers would look like, what forests would look like, how much CO2 would be in the atmosphere — would be how the planet would look if humans didn’t exist.
Not only does the modern environmental movement often oppose any impact to the natural environment without any consideration of how that development could be beneficial to people, it views those impacts as likely to produce catastrophic results. For decades Ehrlich and other doom and gloom thinkers like him predicted death and destruction coming in a matter of a few decades. You probably noticed the world hasn’t come to an end — quite the opposite — meaning the gloom and doom outlook is batting zero at this point.
Yet, we continue to hear these exaggerations. Today, the chief concern is climate change. Just as Ehrlich and others predicted the end of the world, climate activists today would have you believe global warming will, if not curbed with the complete elimination of fossil fuel development, result in the extinction of the human race.
Climate change is a real problem and could be quite disruptive as CO2 emissions climb, but the more egregious predictions of human extinction are just the newest line of gloom and doom. The UN Climate Panel estimates the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will result in a 0.2% to 2% loss in average income, and your chances of dying in a natural disaster have never been lower than they are today. Since 1920, the number of climate-related deaths has plummeted 98%.
This isn’t to say every environmental concern that’s been raised in the last 50 years is mindless hysteria. The first Earth Day happened just a couple years after the Cuyahoga River caught fire. The Hudson River was a toxic soup, and acid rain was a serious threat. We don’t worry today about acid rain or burning rivers, at least not in the developed world. Our environment is far cleaner today than it was in the 1970s, thanks in part to those who first raised awareness of the issue.
However, it’s time to play down the gloom and doom narratives. Not only do they undermine sincere concern about legitimate issues by generating undue skepticism and politicization of the issues, they likely undermine effective solutions to environmental problems – including climate change.
When people think of environmental problems as monolithic threats to our very existence and ignore mankind’s amazing capacity to master our environment, environmental efforts can feel like exercises in futility. In fact, the human race has been spectacularly successful at making the world a better place in which to live. And that’s something to not just honestly acknowledge, but also celebrate.