Earth Day at 30: The Good News

MIDLAND—A new survey of environmental data sponsored by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy shows that in the past three decades, America in general, and Michigan in particular, have seen substantial improvements in environmental quality—improvements that will almost certainly continue in the future.

"While polls consistently find majorities who believe environmental quality in the United States is declining, that perception does not match reality," says the report's main author, Mackinac Center Adjunct Scholar Steven Hayward, director of the California-based Pacific Research Institute's Center for Environmental and Regulatory Reform.

Air quality, for example, has improved dramatically over the past generation. "Michigan cities monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are below the health-based thresholds set by the Clean Air Act for all six `criteria' pollutants—lead, carbon monoxide, ozone, particulates, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide," the study's authors point out. Most Michigan cities not only meet the national standard, but are below the national average. "The one exception is Detroit, which is slightly above the national average for particulates and sulfur dioxide," the authors say. "On the other hand, the Foundation for Clean Air Progress in Washington, D.C. lists Detroit as one of the 10 best U.S. cities in terms of ozone reductions over the last decade."

Water quality shows similar improvement trends. Due to wastewater treatment facilities, the authors point out, all sewage generated in the United States had been treated before discharge by 1992. This treatment means that since 1970, discharge of toxic organics has declined 99 percent and toxic metals by 98 percent.

Michigan has a superior record in monitoring water quality, and has impressive results to report. While all 50 states taken together only assessed 17 percent of their rivers, streams and lakes in the 1996 National Water Quality Inventory, Michigan assessed 40 percent. Of those, 93 percent were deemed "fully supporting," which means they are safe for both swimming and fishing. There have been large improvements in water quality and wildlife health in and around the Great Lakes over the past 30 years. "Today it is once again possible to fish in the Great Lakes, and even to drink their water in most locations," the authors point out. In fact, "the environmental challenge facing the Lakes today no longer comes mainly from industrial pollution or toxics," the authors say, "but from biological threats: Nearly 145 non-native or `exotic' species now found in the Great Lakes are crowding out the habitat of other indigenous species in the Lakes."

Natural resources, including forests and wetlands, are making a comeback as well. There is about three times as much forestland in North America today than in 1920. In Michigan, 44 percent of the state is covered in forest, while only 10 percent of land area is considered "developed." U.S. wetlands destruction has slowed dramatically. Since 1980, the United States has experienced no net loss of wetlands. As for pollution of our land by toxic waste, nationwide, the EPA shows a 42-percent decline in "toxics releases" since 1988, a reduction of nearly 1.5 billion pounds. The chemical industry, not surprisingly, has shown the largest decrease, with a 50.8 percent reduction since 1988.

What accounts for these environmental gains? The seemingly obvious conclusion is to give all credit to such regulations as the 1970 Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. While government regulations undoubtedly play a role, the authors say their research suggests that the "wealth effect" of a growing economy appears to be key to an improved environment.

"As the Michigan and U.S. economies grow, so does their ability to control pollution and protect resources," the authors point out. "Economic growth also means improved technology and, therefore, more efficient uses of raw materials and natural resources. Data suggest that it is this growth, combined with an increasing public demand for a clean environment, that has driven many environmental improvements over the past 30 years." For this reason, the authors say, "environmentalists should not regard economic concerns as a hindrance to effective policy, but should embrace economic growth as the key to further environmental improvements."