Earth Day: National Holiday for Chicken Little

Steven Hayward

April 1, 2001

For environmentalists, having George W. Bush in the White House is almost as good as having an Exxon-Valdez oil spill every day. It gives them a villain to demonize in direct-mail fundraising letters. What can be more fun than that? The Sierra Club claims that Bush’s environmental policy is "returning us to the 19th century." Not to be outdone, another environmental group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, claims that Bush will return us to "a new environmental Dark Age." With few exceptions, the media echoes this line uncritically. We can expect that Earth Day, April 22, will be full of Chicken Little pronouncements about the end of the world.

Calmer souls will recognize most of this as political hyperbole, akin to the die-hards who will go to their graves insisting that Bush stole the election in Florida. This is not to suggest that the arsenic standard for drinking water, drilling for oil in Alaska, or regulating carbon dioxide are illegitimate or unserious issues. They obscure, however, the larger view, which is the steady and continuing improvement in the environment in the U.S.—a trend that is certain to continue during the Bush years, in part because the Bush administration is being more cautious about how it regulates.

You would never know it from listening to Chicken Little environmentalists or the Environmental Protection Agency, but the improvement in the environment is perhaps the single greatest public policy success story of the last generation. The decline in air pollution in American cities, for example, dwarfs the decline in the crime rate or the decline in the welfare rolls over the past decade. We are justly proud of the decline in crime and welfare, but we seem not to notice or express pride in our environmental progress. Environmentalists are afraid they will lose political clout if they acknowledge this progress (even though their movement helped make it happen), and the EPA is also afraid to trumpet these results because it fears having its budget cut.

While air pollution is the most significant success story, major progress has been made in other areas as well. Back in 1969 the nation was shocked when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire, and the degradation of the Great Lakes was a scandal. Today rivers no longer catch fire, and you can safely fish, swim, and drink the water of the Great Lakes in most locations. (Some trouble spots remain.) Long-term data show a major decline in chemical residues in wildlife in the Great Lakes region, and several bird species that were once in decline are now flourishing. Meanwhile, the decline in wetlands has been halted, and the national goal of restoring 100,000 acres of wetlands a year seems within reach. (Figures show that wetlands are already increasing in the western states.)

What has been responsible for this happy story? Regulation has certainly played a central role, but regulators, like King Canute, can only command what is technically and economically feasible. Economic growth and technology are the key ingredients. As people get wealthier, they want more environmental improvement. What the uproar over the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 proved (since the river had caught fire in the 1930s and 1950s without much comment) is that the affluent society does not want to be the effluent society.

None of this is to imply that our work is done, or that we don’t have to worry about the environment, any more than the sharp decline in the crime rate means that we can lay off police officers and stop fighting crime. There remain a number of environmental problems where we are just beginning to devote significant attention, such as curbing "non-point" sources of water pollution.

There are two difficulties in solving these kinds of problems. The first is the scarcity of good information. Unlike air quality, which has been consistently monitored and measured for more than two decades, we have very poor quality data on water quality and several other areas of concern. Even though the EPA spends more than $400 million a year on research, it does not have even basic trend information on water quality. Without better information, policy makers are working in the dark.

The second difficulty is where these problems are best addressed. Up to now, we have emphasized national, Washington-based regulation. The time for this is over. The next generation of environmental policy will have to be located in states and localities. The head of the EPA recently has this to say: "We believe that people know what’s best for their own communities and, given the facts, they themselves will determine what is best to protect public health and the environment." That sounds exactly like what President Bush says, so it is surprising that this statement was made not by Bush’s EPA administrator Christine Whitman, but was made last year by Carol Browner, Bill Clinton’s EPA chief.

Perhaps Bush isn’t so far off track after all.

Steven Hayward is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. He is the author of the Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, released each year on Earth Day.