When polled, 65 percent of U.S. citizens say they are willing to pay good money for better environmental protection, but at the same time most do not believe that environmental deterioration is a crucial issue in their own lives. This seeming contradiction may stem from the fact that it is difficult to recognize subtle and gradual environmental change. But it may also stem from another fact: that various sources, including conservative think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, have been disseminating erroneous information regarding the true state of the environment. Adam Myerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review, pretty much summed up this viewpoint in the journal when he maintained that “leading scientists have done major work disputing the current henny-pennyism about global warming, acid rain, and other purported environmental catastrophes.”
A flood of recent books and articles has also advanced the notion that all is well with the environment after giving undue prominence to the opinions of one or a handful of contrarian scientists in the name of “sound science” and “balance.” With strong and appealing messages, these authors have successfully sowed the seeds of doubt among policymakers and the public about the reality and importance of phenomena such as overpopulation, global climate change, ozone depletion, and loss of biodiversity.
If U.S. citizens were convinced that some changes could enhance their quality of life and that of their children, most would gladly oblige. But when the necessity of such changes is questioned, especially in the name of science and reason, it’s not surprising that most people are hesitant to embark on the necessary course to tackle environmental problems.
What follows is a sampling of the myths, or fables, that the promoters of “sound science” and “balance” are promulgating about issues relating to population and food, the atmosphere and climate, toxic substances, and economics and the environment. By looking at them through the lens of the present scientific consensus, we aim to reveal the gross errors on which they are founded. Thus we may return to higher ground and engage in a crucial dialogue about how to sustain the environment.
Fables about Population and Food
There is no overpopulation today because the earth has plenty of room for more people.
In fact, humanity has already overshot earth’s carrying capacity by a simple measure: no nation is supporting its present population on a sustainable flow of renewable resources. Rich agricultural soils are being eroded in many areas at rates of inches per decade, though such soils are normally formed at rates of inches per millennium. Accumulations of “fossil” fresh water, stored underground over thousands of years during glacial periods, are being mined as if they were metals-and often for low-value uses such as irrigating forage crops like alfalfa, for grazing animals. Water from those aquifers, which are recharged at rates measured in inches per year, is being pumped out in feet per year. And species and populations of microorganisms, plants, and other animals are being exterminated at a rate unprecedented in 65 million years-on the order of 10,000 times faster than they can be replaced by the evolution of new ones.
We needn’t worry about population growth in the United States, because it’s not nearly as densely populated as other countries.
The idea that the number of people per square mile is a key determinant of population pressure is as widespread and persistent as it is wrong. In Apocalypse Not, published by the Cato Institute, economist Ben Bolch and chemist Harold Lyons point out that if the 1990 world population were placed in Texas, less than half of 1 percent of earth’s land surface, “each person would have an area equal to the floor space of a typical U.S. home.” They also say: “Anyone who has looked out an airplane window while traveling across the country knows how empty the United States really is.”
But the key issue in judging overpopulation is not how many people can fit into any given space but whether the earth can supply the population’s long-term requirements for food, water, and other resources. Most of the “empty” land in the United States either grows the food essential to the well-being of Americans and much of the world (as in Iowa), supplies us with forestry products (as in northern Maine), or, lacking water, good soil, and a suitable climate, cannot contribute directly to the support of civilization (as in much of Nevada). The point is that densely populated countries such as the Netherlands, Bermuda, and Monaco and cities such as Singapore, So Paulo, Mexico City, Tokyo, and New York can be crowded with people only because the rest of the world is not.
We should have a bigger population for no other reason than that “people like to be alive.”
One can respond to such statements by asking, “Would people like to be alive if they had to live like chickens in factory farms?” But such retorts are unnecessary. The best way to maximize the number of Americans (or Chinese or Nigerians) who live wouldn’t be to cram as many of them as possible into these countries in the next few decades until they self-destruct. Rather, it is to have permanently sustainable populations in those nations for tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of years.