Author: Brandon Middleton
With Earth Day fast approaching, and the demonizing of capitalism that comes with it, some perspective is in order. I recommend Ronald Bailey's excellent 2000 Reason article, "Earth Day, Then and Now." An excerpt:
Earth Day 1970 provoked a torrent of apocalyptic predictions. "We have about five more years at the outside to do something," ecologist Kenneth Watt declared to a Swarthmore College audience on April 19, 1970. Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that "civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind." "We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation," wrote Washington University biologist Barry Commoner in the Earth Day issue of the scholarly journal Environment. The day after Earth Day, even the staid New York Times editorial page warned, "Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction." Very Apocalypse Now.
Three decades later, of course, the world hasn't come to an end; if anything, the planet's ecological future has never looked so promising. With half a billion people suiting up around the globe for Earth Day 2000, now is a good time to look back on the predictions made at the first Earth Day and see how they've held up and what we can learn from them. The short answer: The prophets of doom were not simply wrong, but spectacularly wrong.
More important, many contemporary environmental alarmists are similarly mistaken when they continue to insist that the Earth's future remains an eco-tragedy that has already entered its final act. Such doomsters not only fail to appreciate the huge environmental gains made over the past 30 years, they ignore the simple fact that increased wealth, population, and technological innovation don't degrade and destroy the environment. Rather, such developments preserve and enrich the environment. If it is impossible to predict fully the future, it is nonetheless possible to learn from the past. And the best lesson we can learn from revisiting the discourse surrounding the very first Earth Day is that passionate concern, however sincere, is no substitute for rational analysis.