Do these toxins make me look fat? Earth Day turns 41.

Cuyahoga River on fire

On June 22, 1969, a portion of the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio. The late1960s were turbulent times; 1969 alone witnessed Woodstock, the Tate-LaBianca murders, and the Mi Lai massacre. The fire on the Cuyahoga River was emblematic of human-caused environmental troubles. This event and others lit a fire under the Congress and the President. The Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental landmarks all happened under the ‘liberal’ Nixon Administration.

And, on April 22, 1970 the United States observed its first Earth Day. On that day most of the observers had taken to heart Paul R. Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb,” which warned, “The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” In those days, members of the environmental movement also predicted air pollution would cause another ice age through global cooling. (As Danish physicist, Neils Bohr supposedly quipped, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”)

Ehrlich and other doomsayers embraced Malthus, an eighteenth century economist who argued that the rapidly growing human population would quickly outstrip its food supply. Like Malthus, they were convinced that the world’s exponential population growth would outstrip the planet’s ability to cope. We needed to curb our population NOW or the population of humankind would collapse like the locust after they descend and voraciously remove every bit of vegetation in an area.

Not everyone thought the world would be destroyed. One man, a ‘free-market environmentalist,’ Julian Simon said the world was getting better and cleaner.

When Bjorn Lomborg, an associate professor in statistics, heard the claim, “My immediate reaction was: ‘Right-wing propaganda! It can’t be true,’ he said in an interview. “I thought it would be fun to get my students to show that he was wrong, but as we went through it, we realised that a lot of the things he said were right – and when you think about it, it’s kind of obvious. Air quality is getting better, not worse. Water quality is getting better. People are better fed, they live longer, they are not as poor or as sick as they used to be. We’ve actually managed to do a lot of good things.

“And yet we have this whole culture, and it’s much, much more than just Greenpeace,” says Lomborg, “that we’re going in the wrong direction, that things are falling apart. Everyone – politicians, journalists and certainly scientists – are telling us that things are getting worse and worse. But that is actually not the case with many – not all, but many – of those important indicators.”

Since that first Earth Day, the earth has not collapsed, and in many ways, conditions for mankind and the earth have vastly improved. Indeed the world’s population has almost doubled, yet we have not removed every whit of resource and become poorer, sicker, and hungrier. Nor did we simply maintain the status quo. No, we find that since 1970 we are doing better. Everyone is three times richer (in real terms), the percentage of people in abject poverty has dropped by over two-thirds, a greater percentage of people are better fed, the average person in a developing country eats more calories per day, the world’s forests cover 99% of what they did in 1970, and the known oil reserves have nearly doubled. The list of accomplishments goes on

Source: Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martin, 2010, "African poverty is falling…much faster than you think"

Four decades ago, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. While this bit of information strikes one as astonishing in its own right, it had happened at least nine times before: 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and in 1952. It has not happened since. Today, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has designated the Cuyahoga one of fourteen American Heritage Rivers, and portions of the river that were devoid of life in 1969 now support dozens of species. Consider the advance of other waterways: the Rhine, the Thames, and New York Harbor; they have greater amounts of dissolved oxygen and thus a greater abundance of life.

Life on earth is far from perfect, yet the human species has made strides towards a healthy planet. The world is cleaner, more livable for people and animals, safer, and more sustainable than it has ever been.

Source: USDA Food Security Assessment-special Report, 2007, US Dept of Agriculture

I will let political satirist P.J. O’Rourke have the last word.

“Things are better now than things have been since men began keeping track of things. Things are better than they were only a few years ago…(I)f you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: ‘dentistry.’”

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