The public hears fantastic tales that all is well with the environment and government regulations stifle economic growth. Two prominent environmental scientists argue that promoters of this “don’t worry be happy” point of view have their heads in the sand
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.
We need a larger population so we will have more geniuses to solve our environmental problems.
Having additional people to work on problems does not necessarily lead to solutions. Consider what happened to the people of Easter Island after this lush, 64-square-mile subtropical Pacific island, some 2,000 miles west of Chile, was colonized by Polynesians some 1,500 years ago. Even as the population soared to around 20,000, all those minds couldn’t solve the tiny island’s resource problems. The large forest of towering palm trees that graced the land was harvested more rapidly than it regenerated. Once they were gone, there was no way to build canoes for porpoise hunting, and without the forest to absorb and meter out rainfall, streams and springs dried up, unprotected soil eroded away, crop yields dropped, and famine struck the once-rich island. Unlike most premodern peoples, the islanders apparently didn’t limit their fertility. Instead, as food supplies became short they switched to cannibalism, which turned out to be an effective-if not very attractive-method of population control. A common curse became, “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.”
Can’t today’s population, with its knowledge of the histories of past civilizations and billions of working minds, help us avoid the fate of the Easter Islanders, and the Henderson Islanders (who completely died out on one of the Pitcairn islands in the South Pacific), the classic Mayans, the Anasazi (Native Americans who built the vast pueblos of Chacon Canyon), and others who destroyed the environmental supports of their societies? We wish the answer were yes. Yet the billions of human minds we have today are not stopping society from destroying its resources even faster than earlier civilizations destroyed theirs.
But that aside, perhaps the larger point is that environmental rather than genetic differences determine what proportion of a population will display genius. It’s very hard to become the next Mozart if one is starving to death on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Having more people today is not the solution for generating more geniuses. Creating environments in which the inherent talents of people now disadvantaged-by race or gender discrimination, poverty, or malnutrition-can be fully expressed, is.
Feeding the world’s population is a problem of distribution, not supply.
Of course, if everyone shared food resources equally and no grain were fed to animals, all of humanity could be adequately nourished today. Unfortunately, such scenarios are irrelevant. Although people in developed countries could eat lower on the food chain-that is, by consuming less meat and more grain-and might be willing to make such sacrifices to improve the environment, it is as unrealistic to think we will all suddenly become vegetarian saints as it is to think we will suddenly trade in our cars for bicycles or go to bed at sunset to save energy.
But even if everyone were willing to eat a largely vegetarian diet today, with only a small supplement from fish and range-fed animals, and food were equitably distributed to everyone, today’s harvests could feed about 7 billion such altruistic vegetarians, according to calculations by the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program at Brown University and our group, the Center for Conservation Biology, at Stanford. Since the world’s population is nearly 6 billion already, that is hardly a comforting number.
We needn’t worry about future food supplies because scientific breakthroughs (as yet unimagined) will boost grain yields around the world.
Analyses of food-production trends over the past few decades suggest that there certainly is cause to worry about maintaining food supplies. While it is true that the most important indicator of human nutrition, world grain production, has roughly tripled since 1950, what food optimists overlook is that the Green Revolution has already been put in place in most suitable areas, and most of the expected yield gains have been achieved. Consequently, grain production increases have failed to keep up with population growth since 1985, and we’ve seen no productivity gains in absolute terms since 1990. Meanwhile, grain reserves have shrunk severely. A new kit of tools to expand food production is required to carry us into the future, yet no such kit appears to be on the horizon. And even if some unanticipated breakthrough were to be made, it would take years if not decades to develop and deploy new crop varieties-years during which demand would continue rising as the population expanded.
Fables About the Atmosphere and Climate
There is no evidence that global warming is real.
The climatic system is exceedingly complex and not entirely understood, but some facts are indisputable. First, scientists have known for more than a century that releasing carbon dioxide could add to the greenhouse effect caused by the gaseous composition of earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere contains an array of natural greenhouse gases-including water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane-that are relatively transparent to the incoming short-wavelength energy of sunlight but relatively opaque to the long-wavelength infrared energy radiated upward by the sunlight-warmed earth. The greenhouse gases and clouds together absorb most of this outgoing infrared energy and reradiate some of it back toward earth, thus functioning as a heat-trapping blanket over the planet. The naturally occurring concentrations of these gases are enough to raise earth’s average surface temperature to about 59 degrees F. Without greenhouse gases, it would be about 0 degrees, the oceans would be frozen to the bottom, and life as we know it would be impossible.
Second, scientists also know that humanity is adding to the greenhouse effect-that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in 1992 was some 30 percent above preindustrial levels, and the concentration of methane has increased by 145 percent. Both gases are natural atmospheric constituents whose concentrations have fluctuated substantially in geologic history. But analyses of air trapped in ice cores from the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps show that today’s levels are by far the highest concentrations of these greenhouse gases in at least the past 160,000 years. Moreover, nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, has increased about 15 percent over its preindustrial level. And chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)-the ozone-destroying chemicals-also contribute to the greenhouse effect.
Thermometers worldwide have documented nearly a full 1-degree rise since the nineteenth century. Furthermore, a consensus has formed in the climatological community that a “discernible signal” of anthropogenic warming is beginning to emerge from the “noise” of natural climatic variation. In fact, the 1995 report of the scientific committee of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that based on the warming recorded over the past century, and especially in recent decades, “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.”
Global warming exists only in computer simulations.
The IPCC’s conclusion was, indeed, based primarily on a new generation of computer simulations. But the results were also based on detailed comparisons with actual temperature records. Moreover, the total body of evidence that the planet is warming is now overwhelming. For example, surface-temperature records, even when corrected for the effects of urban “heat islands” (areas artificially heated by structures such as buildings and parking lots), show that the 10 warmest years in the past 140 years have all occurred since 1980. And the most recent satellite measurements show that shrinkage in Arctic sea ice, another expected result of global warming, accelerated significantly between 1987 and 1994.
Even if the concentration of carbon dioxide doubled, since it is responsible for only 1 percent of the greenhouse effect it wouldn’t contribute to global warming.
By itself, a doubling of CO2 (which, incidentally, accounts for some 10 to 25 percent of the natural greenhouse effect, not 1 percent) would warm earth by less than 2 degrees F. But therein lies the power of positive feedback. A 2-degree rise in temperature would cause more water to evaporate from the oceans and thus contribute additional water vapor to the greenhouse effect, resulting in a final warming most climatologists project to be a little less than 4 degrees. But if the complicating ice and cloud feedbacks are added in, models suggest that anywhere from 3 to 9 degrees of warming would result from a doubling in CO2 levels. Scientists cannot make more accurate predictions at the moment because of uncertainties surrounding the feedback processes, yet most think the upper limit represents ecological disaster. For example, 9 degrees is about the difference in global average temperature that separates today’s climate from that of the last ice age, when the present site of New York City was visited by a mile-thick glacier.
If the average mean temperature of the world were to rise a few degrees in the next century, we could simply wear lighter clothes and use more air-conditioning.
The idea that the primary reason to be concerned about global warming is that our backyards will be a little hotter during the summer barbecue season is as pervasive as it is wrong. The larger problem is that climate change could seriously disrupt a food-production system that already is showing signs of stress. Other potential problems include sea-level rise, which would result in coastal flooding and salinization of groundwater, as well as more intense storms. Finally, natural ecosystems-our life-support systems-will have great difficulty adjusting to rapid climate change. The trees in southern forests can’t just fly up to New England or put on a lighter shirt when the heat becomes too much for them.
CFCs can’t rise 18 miles into the atmosphere to deplete the ozone layer because they are made from molecules that are 4 to 8 times heavier than air.
This statement reveals an outrageous misconception about the dynamics of the atmosphere. Gases of the atmosphere are not layered like a lasagna. If they were, the lowest few feet of atmosphere would consist of krypton, ozone, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, and argon. Above that would be a thick layer of pure oxygen, and above that an even thicker layer of pure nitrogen followed by water vapor, methane, neon, helium, and hydrogen. In fact, the atmosphere undergoes dynamic mixing, dominated by motions of large air masses, which thoroughly mixes light and heavy gas molecules. Because of this mixing, CFCs have been detected in literally thousands of stratospheric air samples by dozens of research groups all over the world.
The chlorine in CFCs is not likely to deplete the ozone layer because volcanoes pump out 50 times more chlorine annually than an entire year’s production of CFCs.
Mount Erebus does pump out 50 times more chlorine per year in the form of hydrogen chloride (HCl) than humanity adds in CFCs. But the statement is irrelevant to depletion of the ozone layer because much of the HCl released by volcanoes is dissolved in the abundant steam that is also emitted and is thus quickly rained out. Unfortunately, unlike HCl, CFCs are not water soluble and thus cannot be washed out of the atmosphere until they have been broken down. And by then, they will already have done their damage to the ozone layer.
If there were, in fact, some reduction in the ozone layer, we could simply wear more hats and sunscreen lotion to avoid skin cancer.
The direct effects of a thinning of the ozone layer-which include not only increased rates of skin cancer (including lethal melanomas) but also disruptions of the immune system-could, of course, be partially avoided by increased use of hats and sunscreen. But rubbing lotions on earth’s plants and animals would be required as well, since the most important threat from ozone depletion is to natural and agricultural ecosystems. Increases of ultraviolet-B radiation could significantly reduce yields of major crops and has been shown to have other significant adverse effects-such as mutation and immune-system impairment-in a wide variety of plants, animals, and microorganisms.
Fables About Toxic Substances
Without the use of massive quantities of pesticides, starvation would stalk the planet.
The truth is that we are already using far too great a tonnage of pesticides for the results achieved. Humanity now applies about 2.5 million tons of synthetic pesticides worldwide each year, and pesticide production is a multibillion dollar industry. Yet pests and spoilage still destroy about 25 to 50 percent of crops before and after harvest. That proportion, if anything, is higher than average crop losses before synthetic pesticides were widely introduced after World War II.
The strategy of large-scale broadcast spraying of pesticides has proven a poor one-except from the standpoint of petrochemical-company profits. An important reason for this lack of success is the rapidity with which pest populations evolve resistance: aided by short generation times and large populations, more than 500 species of insects and mites no longer respond to pesticides, and resistance to herbicides has been noted in more than 100 species of weeds and 150 species of plant pathogens.
Moreover, only a small proportion of the pesticides applied to fields ever actually reaches the target pest. For instance, of those delivered by aerial crop dusters, some 50 to 75 percent miss the target area and less than 0.1 percent may actually reach the pest. The remainder by definition is an environmental contaminant that can injure people and non-target species and in some cases migrate to the far reaches of the globe.
Yet in most cases, pests can be effectively controlled without heavy application of pesticides by using more biologically based methods. Known as integrated pest management (IPM), this approach involves various strategies such as encouraging natural enemies of pests, developing and planting pest-resistant strains of crops, fallowing, mixed cropping, destroying crop wastes where pests shelter, as well as some use of pesticides. IPM is generally vastly superior to chemical-based pest-control methods from both economic and environmental perspectives.
Indonesia, for example, has had remarkable success with IPM. In 1986, responding to the failure to chemically control the brown planthopper, a presidential decree banned 57 of 66 pesticides used on rice. Pesticide subsidies, which were as high as 80 percent, were phased out over two years, and some of the resources saved were diverted into IPM. Since then, more than 250,000 farmers have been trained in IPM techniques, insecticide use has plunged by 60 percent, the rice harvest has risen more than 15 percent, and farmers and the Indonesian treasury have saved more than $1 billion.
Pesticide use no doubt could be greatly reduced everywhere by wider adoption of IPM, which relies on synthetic pesticides as a scalpel only when needed rather than a bludgeon. Relaxing cosmetic standards on foods (such as allowing signs of minor insect damage) might also lead to reductions in pesticide use, as could the recent shift in public preferences toward “organically grown” foods. In fact, Americans increasingly distrust toxic chemicals, as is indicated by soaring sales of organically grown fruits and vegetables, which doubled to $7.6 billion from 1989 to 1994.
Overall, pesticide use in the United States could be reduced by 50 percent for a negligible increase (less than 1 percent) in food prices, according to calculations made in 1991 by the authors of the Handbook of Pest Management in Agriculture. Such a reduction could prove to be a great bargain if, as some scientists think, exposure to pesticide residues can impair the human immune system. And in view of today’s deteriorating epidemiological environment, in which new diseases are emerging and drug-resistant strains of bacteria are causing resurgences of diseases once believed conquered, any loss of immune function should be taken seriously.
Exposure to dioxin is now considered by some experts to be no more risky than spending a week sunbathing.
Of course, with the increase in ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth’s surface because of depletion of the ozone shield, a week of sunbathing is hardly a risk-free activity. But, more seriously, despite a recent barrage of misinformation, plenty of evidence shows that dioxin is a very dangerous chemical, especially in one of its more common forms, known by its chemical shorthand as TCDD.
Dioxin is a byproduct of the combustion of chlorine-containing substances-which are commonly formed when plastics are burned in incinerators and during the manufacture of the herbicide 2,4,5-T-and used in some industrial processes such as bleaching paper. People can absorb tiny amounts of dioxin by eating food contaminated by paper containers, by breathing air polluted with emissions from waste incineration, or handling some herbicides or bleached paper products.
Dioxin not only is easily absorbed and persistent in the body, it is also an extremely potent toxin. As little as one billionth of an ounce can cause chloracne (a severe form of acne) and various generalized complaints such as headaches, dizziness, digestive upsets, and pain. Animal studies and epidemiological investigations indicate that larger doses of dioxin can cause some kinds of cancer. Other effects that have been found include liver and kidney problems, stillbirths, birth defects, and immune suppression. And prenatal exposure to dioxin appears to have a variety of effects on hormone expression-as observed in laboratory animals and wildlife exposed to TCDD-that are sometimes feminizing, sometimes masculinizing.
Fables about Economics and the Environment
The United States can’t afford stronger environmental protection; it would interfere with growth of the gross national product.
In 1990, William K. Reilly, then head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, reported that the direct cost of compliance with federal environmental regulations was more than $90 billion per year-about 1.7 percent of the nation’s GNP. But Reilly also pointed out that, during the two decades when the United States made substantial environmental progress, “the GNP increased by more than 70 percent.” Thus, at worst, it seems that environmental regulation may slightly slow growth in the most commonly used measure of economic progress.
But that said, it should be noted that there is a growing distrust of the ability of GNP to mirror such progress, or more specifically, the enhancement of social well-being assumed to go along with it. In fact, between 1957 and 1992, although U.S. per-capita income doubled, the percentage of people considering themselves “very happy” declined from 35 to 32 percent.
One of the most prominent critics of GNP as an indicator of well-being has been economist Herman E. Daly of the University of Maryland, formerly with the World Bank. Daly has suggested a new measure of economic well-being, the index of sustainable economic welfare (ISEW), which attempts to incorporate environmental factors including depreciation of “natural capital,” such as soil lost to erosion, in its calculation. Between 1951 and 1990, the U.S. per-capita GNP in inflation-adjusted dollars more than doubled, whereas the ISEW grew considerably less than 20 percent and actually declined slightly between 1980 and 1990. “Economic welfare has been deteriorating,” Daly says, largely because of “the exhaustion of resources and unsustainable reliance on capital from overseas to pay for domestic consumption and investment.”
Other nations are also actively seeking better indicators of human satisfaction, especially those that include the critical factor of depreciation of natural capital, from the microbes that maintain soil fertility to fresh water stored in aquifers. Norway has started accounting for its remaining balances of mineral and living resources. France now has “natural patrimony accounts” that track the status of all resources influenced by human activity. And the Dutch government has instituted an accounting system that includes environmental damage and the costs of repairing it. Sweden, Germany, and the United States are all moving in the same direction, with the U.S. Department of Commerce developing a “green gross domestic product.” In short, recognition is growing that once a nation has attained a certain level of individual material comfort, boosting the GNP alone is no longer a sufficient aim.
Stricter environmental regulations will cost American jobs by forcing industries to relocate in nations with weaker standards.
Certainly environmental regulations can cost some jobs, especially in extractive industries or when outdated factories are forced to close because the costs of installing emissions controls exceed the value of the plants. It should be noted, though, that some of the industries (such as mining and logging) that complain the loudest about jobs lost to environmental regulation are of the boom-and-bust variety-set to move on anyway when local resources are depleted.
Other companies pressed by regulations may indeed choose to relocate to nations with weaker environmental laws (and cheaper labor). But as they do, other new jobs are often created, such as in high-tech businesses that favor areas where environmental quality is high, both because clean air and water are essential for their operations and because a healthy local environment helps them attract skilled labor. Moreover, even if factories required to install pollution-control equipment close down and throw their employees out of work, others will purchase smokestack scrubbers, thus creating jobs in firms that make such equipment. Overall, environmental protection is not a major cause of job losses and can be a significant source of new jobs.
Economics, not ecology, should guide policy decisions.
A politician who says something like, “The time has come to put the economy ahead of the environment,” clearly doesn’t understand that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of natural ecosystems, and that the natural environment supplies humanity with an indispensable array of goods and services. In fact, expressed in standard economic terms, the value of ecosystem services is enormous. For example, the ability of the ecosystem to control pests could be worth $1.4 trillion annually, since without natural pest control there could be no production of agricultural crops. Ecosystem services might be valued at a total of about $20 trillion per year-almost equal to the gross global product. But these valuations only hint at the actual value of the services, for without them there would be no human society to enjoy their unsung benefits.
All economists understand that economics is supposed to seek wise ways to allocate resources to meet human needs. As traditionally practiced, however, economics has often considered only the delivery of conventional material goods and services while ignoring environmental goods and services. That economics is not a wise guide for environmental policy decisions is underlined by economists themselves, who say they detect few “signals” indicating serious environmental problems. They are, of course, waiting for price signals reflecting shortages of resources while remaining ignorant of the depletion of many of the most critical resources such as biodiversity, water quality, and the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases without catastrophic consequences, which are not priced by markets.
One Planet, One Experiment
A quick review of some compelling statistics reveals how wrong-and indeed how threatening to humanity’s future-proponents of the notion that we have nothing to worry about can be. The roughly 5-fold increase in the number of human beings over the past century and a half is the most dramatic terrestrial event since the retreat of ice-age glaciers thousands of years ago. That explosion of human numbers has been combined with a 4-fold increase in consumption per person and the adoption of a wide array of technologies that needlessly damage the environment. The result is a 20-fold escalation since 1850 of the pressure humanity places on its environment, as indexed by energy use, the best single measure of a society’s environmental impact. Despite such ominous trends, the antienvironmental proponents continue to hammer away in print and over the airwaves, sowing confusion and doubt in the minds of many citizens about the seriousness-if not the very existence-of environmental deterioration. Thus efforts on behalf of the environment have been limited mainly to grassroots initiatives such as curbside recycling, ecotourism, and enthusiasm for anything “organic.” While we applaud such endeavors, they are utterly insufficient steps that may divert attention from much more basic issues. Instead, society needs to take a longer view and recognize that to be sustainable, the economy must operate in harmony with earth’s ecosystems.
Civilization’s highest priority must be lowering the pressure on those vital ecosystems, seeking a sustainable food-population balance, and safeguarding human health against global toxification and emerging pathogens alike. Achieving this will require humanely reducing the size of populations worldwide by lowering birthrates to below death rates, reducing per capita consumption among the rich to make room for needed growth in consumption among the poor, and adopting more environmentally benign technologies.
Global society is running a vast and dangerous experiment. If the experiment goes wrong, there will be no way to rerun it. In the end, we can only hope that science and reason will prevail and that the public and political leaders will heed its warnings.
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.