Thinking about the environment

TWO important developments have been widely reported recently, with little or no attention to the tension between them. The first is the New York State decision to dismantle the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island, completed at a cost of $5 billion but never put in operation because it did not gain state and local approval of evacuation plans for all people within a 10 mile radius. The second is heightened concern over the ``greenhouse effect'' - a rise in global temperatures attributed in significant part to the trapping of solar heat by gaseous emissions from the combustion of coal, oil, and gasoline.

One may argue that if the Shoreham plant and others are truly unsafe, they must not be used - even if this aggravates environmental problems attendant to increased use of fossil fuels. And up to the point where they curtail living standards, greater conservation efforts are always desirable.

Nonetheless, if the greenhouse effect may result in sweeping environmental changes that will vex us for years to come and require spending billions on corrective measures, high capacity nuclear plants surely should not be dismantled unless it is demonstrated that human intelligence is inadequate to the task of ensuring their basic safety.

In a recent letter to his constituents, Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D) of New York quotes the French theologian Georges Bernanos to the effect that ``the worst, most corrupting lies are problems poorly stated.'' Senator Moynihan was referring to deficient statements of United States economic problems. The idea is equally well applied, though, to complex environmental problems.

For two decades or so, environmental problems have in fact been especially subject to undisciplined statement.

For example, a key datum sighted in discussions of the greenhouse effect is the warming of the earth's average temperature from about 58.2 degrees Fahrenheit in the 1880s to roughly 59.4 degrees in the 1980s. Much diverse scientific knowledge comes into play in interpreting this development, so it isn't surprising that experts differ - for example, as to whether the warmer temperatures of recent years are simply natural fluctuations or the result of burning coal and oil.

Not wanting to nitpick, I would find it refreshing if news accounts pointed out that the data base used in estimating average global temperatures in the late 19th century is vastly less reliable than that available today. The early estimates could be off by a significant amount, in the context of a total reported jump over the past century of 1.2 degrees. Is it ``waffling'' on a serious problem to point out that the task of simply determining the planet's average temperature for a given year - much less explaining changes in it - is far from easy?

Prominent stories in leading newspapers have suggested the possibility of a warming of 3 to 9 degrees over the next half century, and as much as 20 degrees in the polar regions. They contribute to a sense of impending crisis - one that is unjustified on the basis of anything properly called scientific knowledge.

Behind the specifics is a general question of how Americans should understand the essential character of the environmental challenges. One way is to view the world as a series of ecological crises just waiting to happen. Another way, though, emphasizes humanity's striking capacities and accomplishments. Easy to dismiss as Pollyannaish, the latter case is actually quite impressive.

For example, the earth's population was around 750 million in the middle of the 18th century. Over the next century and a half it doubled, and doubled again over the next six decades - reaching about 3 billion in 1960. Estimates for 1987 put the population at just over 5 billion. Though deprivation remains too widespread, today's 5 billion get better nutrition and lead healthier lives than did the 750 million in 1750. Isn't this a fairly impressive environmental achievement?

In the US, with major increases in national wealth since World War II, expectations have risen substantially around many material conditions - including a clean and healthy environment. Over the 1960s and 1970s, polls show, Americans in all social and economic positions came to include cleaner water and air among the things they wanted to ``buy.'' They have strongly backed expensive cleanup programs.

We have enormous technical resources for solving environmental problems. The American public has shown it does not have to be frightened before it will support using them. What the public needs is sober counsel and disciplined distinctions to help it respond sensibly to the complex needs of the years ahead.

Everett Carll Ladd is a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.

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