The Relief Report ®

A newsletter covering regulatory reform efforts in Washington and across America, published by The National Center for Public Policy Research

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Issue #94 * April 22, 2001 * David A. Ridenour, Editor



Earth Day and the Perils of Success: Environmentalism at a Crossroads

The History of Earth Day


Earth Day and the Perils of Success: Environmentalism at a Crossroads

It is sometimes said that a political movement, dedicated to ambitious plans to change society, has two things to fear: Failure to achieve its agenda and actually achieving that agenda. After all, once the movement realizes its goals, it's not needed any more.

On the 31st anniversary of Earth Day, this dilemma faces environmentalists. They have largely achieved the goals they set for themselves three decades ago when they vowed to clean up the nation's air and water and address other ills.

Now that the nation has cleaner air, cars emit less pollutants, jets use less fuel and forests are expanding, environmentalists find it increasingly difficult to persuade the public of the seriousness - or the very existence - of other alleged environmental challenges, such as the unproven threat of human-induced global warming. Consider:

Air quality has significantly improved over 30 years due to decreases in emissions of the six official major pollutants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, carbon monoxide emission levels declined 29%; sulfur dioxide emissions declined 40%; volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog declined 43% and lead emissions sharply declined by 98%. Most major metropolitan areas have shown air quality improvements. The number of unhealthy air days experienced by Los Angeles, often held up as the poster child of harmful urban smog, fell from 173 in 1990 to 27 in 1999.

Water quality has significantly improved. In 1997, the volume of oil spilled in U.S. waters declined by two-thirds compared to 1996, making 1997 the year with the lowest amount of oil spilled in the nation's waters since 1973.

Today's automobiles are the cleanest ever. Between 1970 and 1999, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants decreased 31% although the number of vehicle miles traveled increased 140% and gross domestic product increased 147%.

Economic prosperity and environmental improvement are not mutually exclusive. Industry has made impressive gains in boosting productivity while improving environmental protection.

The timber industry is a prime example. In 1995, U.S. forests produced 37% of global wood pulp, 30% of paper and paperboard, 26% of wood-based panels, and roughly 25% of other wood products. Despite this, net tree growth has exceeded harvest every year. In 1995 the U.S. planted 2.4 million acres of trees, up 1 million acres from 1970.

Modern jets are more environmentally friendly. The Boeing 757 consumes 43% less fuel than older trijets. The Boeing 777 has nearly the same passenger capacity and range capability as the 747, but burns one-third less fuel.

These improvements make it harder to convince the public that there are serious environmental ills. Says Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club, "One effect of the success of the environmental movement over the last thirty years is that environmental issues have become more intangible." Or perhaps it is the case that some "intangible" environmental problems simply don't exist.

Take the alleged threat posed by man-made global warming, the cause celebre of modern environmentalism.

Environmentalists insist that most scientists agree that human activities are causing significant global warming. But over 17,000 scientists signed an Oregon Institute of Science and Health petition which declares, "There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of... greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere." The signers include 2,100 climatologists, meteorologists and environmental scientists.

Confronted with decades of environmental progress, improved industry ability to deliver prosperity in an ecologically safe manner, and insufficient scientific support for alleged threats like global warming, modern environmentalism is at a crossroads.

by John Carlisle

The History of Earth Day

April 22, 2001 marks Earth Day's 31st anniversary.

Former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day's co-founder, modeled Earth Day on anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that were common on college campuses. "At a conference in Seattle in September 1969, I announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment," says Nelson. "The response was electric. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country." As many as 20 million Americans participated in environmental rallies, demonstrations and other activities in the 1970 Earth Day.

Since the first Earth Day the environmental movement has transformed itself from a largely grassroots, citizen crusade to a professionally-organized, established special interest. Environmental organizations now employ 3,400 full-time employees, including leaders who often make $150,000 or more, as well as a small army of scientists, lobbyists, lawyers and public affairs specialists. In his book Undue Influence, Ron Arnold notes that environmental groups are increasingly relying upon wealthy non-profit foundations to fund their extensive operations while members play a declining role. Non-profit foundations donate at least $400 million a year to environmental advocacy and research.

Editorial correspondence to The Relief Report should be directed to: The National Center for Public Policy Research * 20 F Street NW, Suite 700 * Washington, D.C. 20001 * (202) 507-6398 * Fax (301) 498-1301 * E-mail [email protected] * Web Copyright 2001, The National Center for Public Policy Research. Coverage of meetings, activities or statements in the Relief Report does not imply endorsement by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints of material in the Relief Report permitted provided source is credited. To receive all National Center newsletters free by e-mail, visit or send an e-mail to: mailing [email protected].

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