Is It Wrong to Be Optimistic About The Environment?

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A public squabble has broken out over a new book, and the result could be a much-needed shaking up of assumptions, attitudes, and prejudices on the environment.

"A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism," by Gregg Easterbrook, an accomplished magazine writer, covers everything from endangered species to toxic waste and many other issues. And at 743 pages it's a real door-stopper.

But it's also aimed at the general public and by extension government policymakers, which is why professional environmentalists are so upset with it. They are challenging the author in newsletters, press releases, computer forums, and radio debates.

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Easterbrook's assertion is that, far from teetering on the brink of ecological disaster, "the Western world today is on the verge of the greatest ecological renewal that humankind has known."

Among the premises he sums up as "ecorealism" are: "That in the Western world pollution will end within our lifetimes.... That most feared environmental catastrophes, such as runaway global warming, are almost certain to be avoided.... That humankind, even a growing human population of many billions, can take a constructive place in the natural order."

William Reilly, Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Bush administration, calls Easterbrook's work "the most influential book since [Rachel Carson's] 'Silent Spring'." Environmental naysayers say it confirms their argument that most environmentalists are Chicken Littles.

But other experts have probed "A Moment on the Earth" and found it full of holes. Not only that, they say it is dangerous because it lulls people into a false sense that everything is OK.

Leading the criticism is the Environmental Defense Fund, a research and advocacy group that stresses science as the basis of its work. In a lengthy analysis of the book, EDF staff scientists (with the help of some academic experts) pick it apart page by page, concluding that it is "replete with errors and misinterpretations of the scientific evidence."

"This is especially notable in regard to the four chapters that deal with habitat loss, global warming, ozone depletion, and species extinction," they write, "probably the four most serious threats to the natural environment.... "

Many top scientists agree that these are serious threats. And yet in some ways the facts involved are either so arcane or as yet so uncertain that it's hard for the average citizen to know whom to believe.

A year ago, the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy (a think tank that favors free markets, private property rights, and limited government) published what it called "The Index of Leading Environmental Indicators." Using government statistics and other sources, this study concluded that "many aspects of environmental quality have improved dramatically since the first Earth Day in 1970."

More recently, on the other hand, the progressive National Center for Economic Alternatives in its "Index of Environmental Trends" came to exactly the opposite conclusion. "Despite some significant gains in a few areas [over the past 20 years]," this report states, "all nine advanced industrial countries surveyed register negative quantitative shifts on the composite long-term index of ecological change."

Scientific data-gathering and analyses have always been important in setting environmental policy. Everyone advocates "good science," but that is highly subjective. Those pushing for changes to the Endangered Species Act, for example, want to substitute "sound verifiable science" for "best available science" in this controversial law. Depending on who's in charge, that could be a big change.

The challenge for concerned citizens will be to weigh skeptically all such assertions. And to rely on informed intuition in deciding whether in fact their piece of Earth is in good shape.

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