Recent opinion surveys have found sharp changes in attitudes about environmental issues. A recent Harris Poll reported that 56 percent of Americans are now optimistic about our environmental future, and other polls show the public is tuning out environmentalists. Public perception is finally starting to catch up to reality, as the data show that most -- most, though not all -- environmental problems in the United States have been getting better for a long while now. The gloom-and-doom messages of environmental activist groups and the bad-news inclinations of the news media have obscured these trends, but eventually the public has started to notice the massive improvements in air quality and the rebirth of America's forestlands.
In some areas, such as air pollution, the improvements over the last 30 years are larger in magnitude than the improvements we have experienced in reducing the crime rate and welfare dependency, both of which are widely celebrated as immense public policy success stories.
The year 2004, for example, recorded the lowest level of air pollution since we started measuring the problem seriously in the 1950s. The number of EPA monitors showing elevated levels of fine particle pollution--the kind that lodge deep in the lungs and contribute to respiratory diseases--has fallen by two-thirds just in the last four years. Ozone levels also came in a record low level. More reductions are on the way: The EPA's own computer models predict a more than 80 percent decline in pollution from cars and trucks over the next 20 years as new technologies come on line.
America's forestlands have expanded by nearly 10 million acres over the last decade and have, in fact, been expanding since the 1920s. No less an environmental authority than Bill McKibben noted that this trend was "the great environmental story of the United States, and in some ways of the whole world." Closely related to this is the reversal of wetlands loss; as recently as the 1970s we were losing 100,000 acres of wetlands a year. The most recent government data say we are gaining wetlands at the rate of about 26,000 acres a year.
Other measures of invisible environmental threats such as toxic chemicals show similar huge improving trends. Dioxin levels are down more than 90 percent since 1980; levels of PCBs and other chemicals in wildlife in the Great Lakes are down by 90 percent or more since 1970.
While too many species are still endangered, the one that launched our initial concern, the bald eagle, is about to come off the endangered species list because its numbers have rebounded from less than 500 nesting pairs in 1965 to more than 7,500 today. Last year in Alaska's Prince William Sound, the site of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, blue whales were spotted for the first time in decades.
Not everything is going as well as our fight against smog and our efforts to recover bald eagles. Alaskan sea lion populations continue to show a worrisome decline, and there are numerous water quality problems that we are having trouble mastering.
Another difficult area is the rising number of fish advisories on the nation's streams, rivers and lakes. These have been soaring in recent years, but this is misleading, as the number of advisories reflects stepped-up bureaucratic effort more than genuine knowledge of fish conditions. The "advisories" are exactly that: Sport fishermen are merely advised that fish may contain elevated levels of mercury or other chemicals. But we really don't know. The bureaucratic imperative is: If in doubt, declare an advisory.
The overall record is clear: We've gotten pretty good at dealing with environmental problems. We often do it in the most expensive way--the EPA specializes in billion-dollar solutions to million-dollar problems--and environmental regulation too often neglects or tramples on property rights and open markets.
But the broader point is more important to grasp. The doom-and-gloom outlook of conventional environmentalists is, as the kids like to say, so yesterday. As New York Times columnist (and professed environmentalist sympathizer) Nicholas Kristof put it in a recent column, "Environmental alarms have been screeching for so long that, like car alarms, they are now just an irritating background noise."
Environmentalists have only themselves to blame for the loss of public sympathy. The relentless hyping of exaggerated or nonexistent crises has finally caught up with them, at a time when global environmental problems (such as China's soaring air pollution, already detectable in overseas winds reaching the West coast of the U.S.) need serious attention. Instead, U.S. environmental groups can't stop kvetching about President Bush supposedly "gutting" the Clean Air Act, even as we notch record lows in air pollution. This shows a lack of fundamental seriousness and self-discipline. As Mr. Kristof wrote, "It's critical to have a credible, nuanced, highly respected environmental movement. And right now, I'm afraid we don't have one."
I'd add one more thought. The pessimism that often accompanies environmentalism is ill-suited for both the naturally optimistic American character and the realities of the modern world, where economic growth and progress are the hope, and not the threat, of the future.
The lesson of the past century has been that environmental progress depends on economic and technological progress, which are best produced by dynamic markets. Environmental progress in the 21st century will build upon this foundation.