Old and New Environmental Myths

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It's fascinating to observe the path of many contentious environmental problems. They attract national attention, the future is seen as foreboding, and then, years later, they have been solved, ameliorated, or forgotten. Acid rain and fluorocarbons exemplify this path. Regulations may solve the projected problems, and we sometimes find that the alleged problem is less consequential than initially supposed. Here's an example.

Twenty years ago the National Center for Policy Analysis commissioned Lynn Scarlett of the Reason Foundation to write a policy report, "A Consumer's Guide to Environmental Myths and Realities." It began with the observation that Americans are besieged with admonitions and advice on being good environmentalists. The focus was on what to buy and how to act.

The study demonstrated that much of this counsel was flawed and driven by special interest. Yet, even today, this well researched and crafted 40-page study is worth reading for several reasons.

First, it demonstrates pervasive and substantial progress; nine of the ten concerns that preoccupied Greens two decades ago have eroded if not fully evaporated. When did you last hear "America is running out of landfill space" listed as an environmental problem? Twenty years ago it was myth #1.

Nine of the ten myths focused on the consequences of consumer behavior. They included: Americans are especially wasteful (We weren't.); packaging, plastics, and disposables are inherently bad (They weren't.); recycling is unambiguously good (It isn't.); and biodegradable is best, while solid waste is necessarily dangerous (Not necessarily.).

These simple rules, even when they are myths, economize on information. However, they are sometimes inappropriate, even dangerous, in a complex world. Essentially, over time we've moved up the learning curve in dealing with the physical consequences of consumption in a more responsible manner. Practice may not make perfect, but it has surely led to substantial improvements. Hence, the vexing problems of 1990 have not disappeared but they have dissipated.

At twenty years removed, the Green naiveté underlying these myths seems really quite remarkable. It may also give rise to optimism; if nine of the ten problems have been discounted to near irrelevance in a mere two decades, might today's problems likewise diminish with time?

But perhaps, this time really is different.

What about myth #10: "We are running out of resources." Well, aren't we? Non-renewables are just that; we really are using up things like copper, cadmium, and cobalt. I¹ll return to that issue below but first ask the reader to contemplate the implications of one uncontestable fact, the bronze age didn't end due to a shortage of bronze, nor did the iron age end due to a paucity of iron. In both cases ingenuity produced superior substitutes.

Today's Environmental Problems

Those committed to environmental protest as an essential part of their zeitgeist may find one logical reason why the problems of two decades have receded into insignificance; today's are so much worse. Today's cancer makes yesterday's cold a trivial annoyance. Chewing gum and passing notes in class were once punishable offenses. In retrospect, those were surely the good days. The severity of problems depends on context.

Consider the "population explosion." This surely remains a huge problem in the pathologically troubled Third World. In developed economies, however, the major problem is population implosion, a dearth of births. Japan and Western Europe are producing children at far less than the replacement rate of 2.2 children per woman.

This poses huge problems in the next few decades. And for this there is no easy, if any, fix. Demography holds few surprises and evidence is obvious. Yet, people will adjust as expectations change.

Endangered species surely exemplify major problems involving culture and political economy. It seems important to me that the snow leopard or white rhinoceros avoid extinction. However, that potential loss has little if any impact on the material state of human wellbeing.

Climate change may indeed be a huge environmental problem, or it may not. It surely presents a major set of ethical problems and fantastic opportunities for politicians.

In contrast, running out of material resources has yet to be a problem when property rights are secure and the market process is permitted to foster discovery, substitution, and conservation. Scarcity has never won a race against creativity when marketable commodities are at issue.

When considering policies designed to deal with environmental threats, we are well advised to always ask the ecologists' question: "And then what?" What are the predictable consequences of the proposed policies? We often find them wasteful, detrimental, or useless at best.