The facts contradict environmental alarmism

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

Compared to previous years, this Earth Day seemed relatively upbeat for the most part. Headlines appeared to trumpet “green” technologies far more than black lungs. But the eco-hyperbole that did manage to surface was particularly toxic, as if intended to poison any suggestion that the environment is appreciably improved.

A case in point was Stephen Hume’s April 23rd commentary The party's over for the world's most profligate – us. According to Hume, we are consuming natural resources at a rapacious rate, i.e., beyond Earth’s capacity to sustain us. “Oil inflation, population growth, degrading cropland, collapsing fish stocks and water shortages … are harbingers of something ominous,” he claimed.

Such alarmism is hardly original, of course. But it has retreated some in recent years, foiled by the facts. Nonetheless, Hume and other deniers of environmental progress remain convinced that famine and pestilence loom. In fact, food production has increased by 40 per cent in the past 50 years, thus keeping pace with global population growth. In addition, agricultural products today are far more affordable (relative to wages) than ever before, according to economists Stephen Moore and Julian Simon.

Contrary to Hume’s claim, living standards likewise are improving the world over. The economies of developing nations grew faster in the past decade (1995–2005) than in the previous two decades — and faster than those of high-income countries, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, developing nations’ share of global output has increased from 39 per cent to 46 per cent.

Still, Hume and his fellow armchair alarmists insist that the “the rich” ultimately must face “the forced surrender of some material wealth” for the good of humanity. But “forced surrender of some material wealth” is precisely what preceded the indiscriminate slaughter of 35 million Chinese at the hands of their Communist comrades, as well as 62 million victims of Red Russia.

Hume is correct in stating that the notion of population growth depleting natural resources dates back at least to 1798, when demographer Thomas Malthus first published his “Essay on the Principle of Population.” But Hume fails to note that Malthus actually reversed himself in later years in response to further study — a course of action that Hume would do well to emulate.

To hear Hume tell it, our addiction to oil is driving our downfall. But those who curse gas guzzlers and pine for carriages evidently are ignorant of actual conditions back in the day. According to the U.S. National Safety Council, the horse-associated fatality rate was 10 times the car-associated rate of modern times. Otto Bettmann, in his book The Good Old Days — They were Terrible, relates that healthy horses each produced between 20 and 25 pounds of manure a day, all of which drew swarms of flies and, when dried, turned to a fine powder that filled the air. The smell of urine-soaked hay emanated from the stables on every street.

The march of civilization certainly has trampled the environment at times. In most cases, resource exploitation resulted in the absence of private property rights. But nature has proven to be a lot more resilient than many like Hume are willing to admit. Indeed, environmental conditions today are better than they have been in decades.

For example, there has been “a marked reduction in the levels of toxic chemicals in air, water, biota, and sediments,” according to the 2007 “State of the Great Lakes” issued by Environment Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The two agencies also report:

• The atmospheric deposition is improving for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, dioxins, and furans.

• Canadian emissions of sulfur dioxide decreased 29 per cent from 1990 to 2002.

• Lead levels in the Great Lakes region decreased by 97 per cent between 1980 and 2004.

• Canada’s emissions of particulate matter (PM 10) dropped by 15 per cent between 1990 and 2002, while emissions of volatile organic compounds declined 22 per cent over the same period.

• Concentrations of most organic contaminants in the Great Lakes are “low and declining.”

• Canadian withdrawals from the Great Lakes have fallen by 30 per cent since the 1990s.

• Sediment cores reveal significant declines over the past three decades in concentrations of PCBs, DDT, lead and mercury.

Hume has concluded that ultimately we’ll have to live with less food, fewer cars and smaller houses — sacrifices he doesn’t consider to be “such a bad prospect.” But missing from his calculation is the loss of freedom. Yet freedom is necessary to exercise our ingenuity for the benefit of the environment and mankind.

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