The Perils of Success: Environmentalism at a Crossroads, by John Carlisle

It is sometimes said that a political movement, dedicated to ambitious plans to change society, has two things to fear: Failure to achieve its ideological 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 environmental 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.


* The nation’s air quality has significantly improved over the last 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%. As a result, most major metropolitan areas have shown marked improvements in air quality. 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 1999.1

* 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 1973.2

* Today’s automobiles are the cleanest in history. Between 1970 and 1999, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants decreased 31% even though the number of vehicle miles traveled increased 140% and gross domestic product increased 147%.3

Hence, contrary to what some environmentalists would have people believe, economic prosperity and environmental improvement are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, 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 such production, since the 1950s, net tree growth has exceeded harvest every year. According to Clinton’s Council on Environmental Quality, in 1995 the U.S. planted 2.4 million acres of trees, up 1 million acres from 1970.4

Likewise, modern jets are more environmentally friendly. The Boeing 757 consumes 43% less fuel than older trijets, such as the 727. The Boeing 777 has nearly the same passenger capacity and range capability as the 747, but burns one-third less fuel.5

Environmentalists concede that these improvements in environmental quality make it harder to convince the public that there are other, supposedly more 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.”6 Or perhaps it is the case that some of those “intangible” environmental problems simply don’t exist.

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

Environmentalists vehemently insist that most scientists agree that carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, cars and other human activities are causing significant global warming that is threatening the planet’s environment.

But this is false.

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 who are especially well-qualified to evaluate the effects of carbon dioxide on the Earth’s climate. One prestigious signer is Dr. Frederick Seitz, former president of the National Academy of Sciences.7 Even scientists who subscribe to the global warming theory have admitted that their dire predictions are proving wrong. Dr. James Hansen, a leading global warming theorist, says his predictions of catastrophic warming did not materialize because he underestimated the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed by oceans and forests.8

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.


John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. 


1 Latest Findings on National Air Quality: 1999 Status and Trends, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air Quality.

2 Polluting Incident Compendium, Cumulative Data and Graphics for Oil Spills 1973-1999, United States Coast Guard.

3 Latest Findings on National Air Quality.

4 1999 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, Pacific Research Institute, San Francisco, California.

5 Boeing Corporation, Commercial Airplanes, Background Information, downloaded March 13, 2001,

6 2000 Earth Day Information Center Fact Sheet, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, DC.

7 John K. Carlisle, “Cooling Off on Global Warming,” National Policy Analysis, Number 284, The National Center For Public Policy Research, Washington, DC, April 2000.

8 “NASA Scientist: Greening Biosphere Stunts Warming,” World Climate Report, 1998.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.