Unhappy Earth Day

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Ah, it's that time of year! Taxes, spring, pagan fertility rituals, and not coincidentally Easter (with its eggs, fast-breeding bunnies, and a resurrection), Arbor Day, and Earth Day. With Earth Day only a week away, now is a good time to reflect on whether the environment is improving or worsening, with all the implications for human health that implies.

At a debate in New York City last week, political scientist Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, argued that the world, while far from perfect, is improving. He noted that while there are still many starving people in the world, the percentage of the Earth's population that is starving is steadily declining and the per capita calorie consumption of people in the developing world is steadily rising. Meanwhile, the environmental problem for which the scientific evidence of human health effects is strongest particulate air pollution is rapidly being alleviated. Lomborg says that ignoring these improvements, always assuming that doomsday is just around the corner, makes it harder to prioritize rationally when formulating public policy. Rather than expecting everything to get worse, we should recognize that countries go through predictable phases of initially-dirty industrialization followed by cleaner, more efficient high technology.

Lomborg's debate opponent, Fred Krupp of the group Environmental Defense, conceded that some environmental indicators are getting better (though he didn't elaborate upon them) but said others are still getting worse. Though he, like Lomborg, expressed a desire to base environmental initiatives on good data, he returned, in a low-key way, to familiar warnings: "many challenges remain that demand urgent attention...The risks are just too great...Here in the U.S., 15,000 deaths a year are ascribed to our air pollution...the very web of life is unraveling...the world's birds...one out of every eight is endangered...The Earth is warming, oceans are rising..."

Krupp expressed a wariness about cost-benefit analysis, saying that it all too often leads to favoring industry, and said he doesn't see how one can put a monetary value on something like a bald eagle. He didn't explain, though, how one makes rational decisions in the absence of cost-benefit analysis and economic calculation. Gut instinct? Aesthetics? Divine revelation?

This last method, revelation, is not the way that Fred Krupp reaches decisions, judging by his interest in scientific arguments and statistics. However, environmentalists know especially when organizing events like Earth Day that they are tapping into something like a religious impulse among the rank and file, a fear of doomsday, combined with a longing for purity through sacrifice not so different from the attitude of the Easter celebrants and pagans. If Lomborg is right and things are getting better, it may be very difficult for many rank-and-file environmentalists to give up their favorite narrative, which is fundamentally declinist (the official Earth Day organizers' website, EarthDay.net, is full of warnings about the unsustainability of the global economy, including passages that imply that machinery causes hunger in the developing world).

Let me suggest a new public relations approach for Lomborg and his fellow eco-skeptics, then: No one reacts well to having his religion criticized, so rather than fight an uphill battle against the radical environmentalists' whole worldview, calling them scaremongers and doomsayers, why not tap even deeper into the same well of pagan longing that the environmentalists have drawn from? If it's wholesome images of clear, blue skies and clean rivers that the average Earth Day participant is moved by (rather than dry statistics), perhaps it's time to start celebrating all the progress that's been made in cleaning up the environment, progress made possible as Lomborg likes to remind audiences by the sheer accumulation of wealth, which affords us the luxury to worry about things like soot and deforestation.

What would happen over the course of years or decades, I wonder, if the (relative) environmental optimists such as Lomborg started holding their own Earth Day events, complete with sing-alongs and ritualistic puppetry, and talking about the statistics that show the Earth is getting cleaner and the human race healthier? The conventional doomsday narrative may be attractive to some people, but on a holiday, people are generally on the lookout for good news. Even the most dire Earth Day prophecies are normally coupled with upbeat talk of ways we can ritually redeem and renew ourselves: recycling, composting, solar panels, and so forth.

What if, for a change, people were told that it's not just the Earth Day rallies they attend that help the planet but the technological progress in which they participate every day, the wealth they create, and the science they routinely employ? What if they were told (by folk singers, celebrity guest speakers, and a Muppet or two) that it is not apocalypse that looms on the horizon but health, prosperity, and cleanliness if that is what the best science and most plausible long-range forecasts suggest?

We might discover that the optimist message, presented with the same earnestness and passion normally reserved for the doomsday scenarios, has an even greater allure than the pessimistic message. I suspect that even the most hardcore among the greens, resplendent in their festive tree hats and monarch butterfly costumes, would be relieved to have a happy Earth Day for a change.