Myth #2: America Is The World’s Leading Threat To The Environment

A series of 5-myths via Daniel Flynn’s excellent book — Machiavelli said, “One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”


INVENTING “FACTS” TO promote one’s political objectives is certainly not a phenomenon confined to feminists. Radical en vironmentalists also willingly twist the facts when attempting to promote a political agenda. The more politicized the agenda, the deeper their belief seems to become.

  • Environmentalists claim that humans have depleted the forests for their own selfish motives. Some of the more extreme green activists implant steel spikes in trees to injure loggers or place themselves in trees to prevent timber harvesting. Reforestation and advances in *­fighting technology, however, have ensured that Amer­ica has more trees now than at any point in over 100 years. As John Tierney points out in a New York Times Magazine article, “Yes, a lot of trees have been cut down to make today’s newspaper. But even more trees will probably be planted in their place. America’s supply of timber has been increasing for decades, and the nation’s forests have three times the amount of wood today than in 1920.”
  • In his best-selling book Earth in the Balance, then senator Al Gore commented, “We now know that [automobiles’] cumulative impact on the global environment is posing a mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront.” Do we really “know” this? Cars av­eraged around 14 miles to the gallon in the mid-1970s. Today, they average more than 30 miles to the gallon. Automobiles rolling off the assembly line today emit 99% fewer hydrocarbons, 96% less carbon monoxide, and 90% less nitrogen oxide than cars hitting the street 30 years ago. Things are getting better, not worse.
  • “The battle to feed humanity is over,” Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb famously proclaimed in 1968. “In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” The Population Bomb prophesied that “a minimum of ten mil­lion people, most of them children, will starve to death during each year of the 1970s. But this is a mere handful compared to the number that will be starving before the end of the century. And it is now too late to take action to save many of those people.” Needless to say, this modern-day Malthus erred. Since intellectuals and jour­nalists deemed Ehrlich’s ideology correct and cared less about his incorrect facts, the Stanford professor has be­come a media darling, and his book has gone on to sell millions of copies.

Perhaps the greatest myth advanced by environmentalists posits that the primary villain responsible for the planet’s eco­logical problems is the United States. An anticapitalist protes­tor curiously described the September 11 terrorists as “lashing out against the American foreign policy, which is basically to protect the American lifestyle, which is an unsustainable life­style…. We will never have peace until everybody basically lives the same way.” Apart from the disingenuousness of pro­jecting one’s personal ideology on the terrorists, does the rest of the world demand that we adopt their standard of living, or do they instead envy our prosperous position? “Economically, we can only hope that other nations will never achieve our stan­dard of living, for if they did, the earth would become a desert,” author James Loewen opines, proposing that nations regress to “zero economic growth” even if it takes an international body to enforce the goal.

Yet it is not technology or the United States that threatens the environment. Americans breathe cleaner air and drink cleaner water than almost anyone. The World Resources Insti­tute’s rankings of the world’s most polluted cities list no U.S. metropolises in its top tier. In fact, China boasts 9 out of the 10 most polluted cities. An Asian magazine’s study listed Beijing, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Hong Kong as the globe’s most environmentally inhospitable cities. Pollution in many other countries is far worse than it is in the United States. An inconvenient fact confronts environmentalists who are quick to blame America for ecological ills: It is not the United States that pollutes Lanzhou, New Delhi, or Mexico City.

The United States is a more environmentally considerate nation than it was just a few decades ago. The air is cleaner. Of the six air pollutants that the Environmental Protection Agency began tracking in 1975, all six are down significantly today. Some of the pollutants measure a mere fraction of their former presence. Lead stands at less than a tenth of its 1975 level, while carbon monoxide has slipped to less than half its 1975 level. The amount of forest acreage has risen dramatically. The U.S. Forest Service reports that the number of new trees has ex­ceeded the number of trees cut down in every year since 1952. The water is cleaner. Scenes such as the Cuyahoga River aflame are a distant memory. Now people actually fish in the Cuya­hoga. The United States compares favorably to other indus­trialized nations in the cleanliness of its waterways. The Mississippi, for instance, is cleaner than the Seine, the Rhine, and the Thames. Would anyone prefer drinking from the Ganges or the Volga than from the Colorado?

New Republic writer Gregg Easterbrook points out that we have much to cheer about regarding the environment. Indus­trial toxic emissions declined by nearly half from 1988 to 1996, several formerly endangered species now thrive, the govern­ment and the private sector cleaned up a third of all Superfund toxic waste sites, and forest area continues to expand. He fur­ther states,

Twenty-five years ago, only one-third of America’s lakes and rivers were safe for fishing and swimming; today two-thirds are, and the proportion continues to rise. Annual wetlands loss has fallen by 80 percent in the same period, while soil losses to agricultural runoff have been almost cut in half. Total Ameri­can water consumption has declined nine percent in the past 15 years, even as population expands, especially in the arid South­west. Since 1970, smog has declined by about a third, even as the number of cars has increased by half; acid rain has fallen by 40 percent; airborne soot particles are down 69 percent, which is why big cities have blue skies again; carbon monoxide or “winter smog” is down 31 percent; airborne lead, a poison, is down 98 percent. Emissions of CFCs, which deplete strato­spheric ozone, have all but ended.

Technological innovation has at times harmed the environ­ment. Today, technology serves the environment. Pesticides and genetic engineering have increased crop yields, feeding the millions of people the environmentalists warned would surely starve by now. Sewage treatment is so advanced that the same water some Californians flush down their toilets eventually re­cycles back clean through their faucets. Energy now burns cleaner, with technological advances allowing some alternative energy sources to cause no pollution at all. Yet the naysayers persist. Doomsday prophet Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, maintain, “Most people do not recognize that, at least in rich nations, economic growth is the disease, not the cure.” – The facts vindicate the very opposite view. The growth in the U.S. economy over the past quarter century coincided with and resulted in a health­ier environment.

As implied by the “ism” affixed to it, environmentalism sometimes acts as a surrogate religion for its followers. The zeal of the committed environmentalist is based on faith—and faith in something false, at that. Logic and reason play next to no role in swaying the radical environmentalist’s devotion to his creed’s sacred tenets, such as the belief that economically ad­vanced nations threaten Mother Nature. Since many environ­mentalists believe that they’ve received an enlightenment that passed the rest of us by, they rationalize their use of deception to achieve their desired ends. When you’re saving the world, what’s the harm in telling a few lies to achieve your objective?

The problem is that, although environmentalists may cava­lierly think that they are saving the world, they are not doing anything of the sort. Their more misguided crusades have in­flicted pain on a great number of people. Victims include log­gers harmed by “tree sitters” and other activists, apple growers put out of business by the phony Alar scare, and Africans placed at greater risk for malaria because of the ban on DDT While a need for a movement that safeguards the health of the environ­ment clearly exists, we could do without the kind of environ­mentalism that relies on deception, dogmatically forgoes cost-benefit analyses of its policy prescriptions, and seeks laws whose results frequently betray their intentions.

In the wake of 1992’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, a group of scientists released a document decrying “the emergence of an irrational ideology that is opposed to scientific and indus­trial progress and impedes economic and social development.” The Heidelberg Appeal, as the statement became known, even­tually bore the signatures of 3,000 scientists, including more than 70 Nobel Prize winners. “The greatest evils which stalk our earth are ignorance and oppression, not science, technology, and industry,” concluded the document. Environmentalists blaming American technology and energy use for the world’s ecological maladies would be wise to heed the message of these men of science.