Environmental quality continues to improve dramatically in the U.S., according to the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators 2002, released by the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute (PRI). Authors Steven Hayward and Julie Majeres show that environmental quality has been improving since the first Earth Day 32 years ago, despite the public perception that it is getting worse.
"Environmental scare-mongering harms environmental policy because it detracts from constructive, science-based policy," said the authors. "With all of the information thats available online, citizens don't have to take anyone's word for it, they can check it out for themselves."
The study uses government data to examine long-term air and water quality trends, toxic chemicals and land use, as well as biodiversity issues. The authors take an in-depth look at the evolution of the environmental debate and provide extensive web-based resources.
On Earth Day, April 22, the Institute will launch a new environmental section on its website with local data for all 50 states and an exhaustive guide to online environmental resources (http://www.pacificresearch.org/press/index.html).
The following is a top-10 list of positive environmental trends based on the report:
1. Air quality is improving and is going to continue to improve. Many news stories give the impression that air quality is worsening, and that health problems from air pollution are on the rise. However, since 1970, aggregate emissions of the six "criteria" pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Acts have declined 29 percent, at the same time that the U.S. economy grew 150 percent, auto travel increased by 143 percent and total U.S. energy consumption (the primary source of air pollution emissions) increased 45 percent. Air quality will continue to improve because of technology, turnover of the auto fleet to lower polluting engines, and new regulations of public utilities.
2. The U.S. is not running out of energy. Volatile gasoline prices and California's blackouts have led many to think we are entering a new era of energy shortages. The truth is that the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline, even with the turmoil in the Middle East pushing up oil prices, is near an all-time low. Other energy supplies (coal and natural gas especially) remain abundant.
3. Humans are not facing increasing risks from toxic chemicals.The total amount of toxic chemicals used in the U.S. economy is declining. New CDC studies suggest that human exposure to toxic heavy metals is far below the thresholds for health risk. According to the EPA's Toxic Releases Inventory, toxic releases have declined 48.5 percent since 1988. While further study is needed, there does not appear to be an imminent threat from "bioaccumulative" chemicals. Residues of DDT in human tissues have fallen 80 percent in the last generation.
4. Economic growth is good for the environment. In the 1970s, many leading environmentalists argued that economic growth was incompatible with a healthy environment. However, international data show that the nations with the most robust economies have the best record of environmental protection. Today, a growing number of environmentalists are acknowledging that economic growth is the main prerequisite for an improving environment.
5. The U.S. is not running out of farmland or open space. The rapid growth of American metro areas in recent decades has fueled the understandable perception that we are "running out of land." New methods of analyzing satellite imagery have revealed that most of the statistics on land cover in the U.S. are turning out to be wrong by a high order of magnitude. How cities should grow is an important issue, but choices should be made based on accurate information.
6. Water quality is improving. Water quality is measured very poorly and inconsistently in the U.S., but several measures indicate substantial improvement. Wetlands loss has virtually ended. The next generation of water quality improvement, reducing runoff from farms and the paved surfaces of our cities, will be a major challenge.
7. We're going to get better at protecting species and habitat.The threat of species extinction through loss of habitat is the single most important environmental problem facing the U.S. and the world. However, our knowledge of species, habitat protection strategies, and creative initiatives to preserve habitat are growing at a rapid rate. Effort should be made to preserve hotspots in tropical forests that are especially rich in biodiversity.
The top 25 such areas compose just 1.4 percent of the Earth's land area, but contain perhaps as much as 70 percent of plants and animal species. One of the foremost biodiversity experts, biologist Edward O. Wilson, estimates that preserving this area could cost as little as $30 billion. To put this into perspective, the U.S. private sector spends $100 billion annually complying with environmental regulations.
8. Environmental issues aren't just for experts anymore. Many citizens think environmental issues are too complicated to understand, or that accurate information is hard to obtain. Now there is an abundance of user-friendly government information available on the Internet. Much of it is highly localized, offering powerful tools to empower citizens, and to be pro-active in improving the environment in their town or region.
9. The most important new environmental initiatives are taking place on the local level and through private action. Environmental discourse tends to give the impression that unless the federal government acts, the environment won't be effectively protected. But scholars are calling "civic environmentalism" the newest trend in environmental improvement: citizens banding together without lawsuits or government mandates to clean up rivers, protect and restore habitat and preserve species.
10. Environmental improvement in the U.S. is perhaps the greatest public-policy success story of the last generation. While most people point to public policy successes such as the drop in the crime rate and welfare dependency over the last decade, the magnitude of improvement in the environment over the last generation is much larger. A proper perspective on real trends will set priorities for the next generation.