This article originally appeared in the May 25, 2001 issue of the MIRS newsletter in answer to the question: "Has the Michigan environment been damaged during the past 10 years of the administration of Gov. John Engler and can environmental protection be balanced with the need for economic growth?"

These are issues, unfortunately, which are tainted all too frequently by junk science and partisan political agendas.  Groups that claim to be friends of the environment are often friends of more government first and foremost, and seem determined never to let facts get in the way of their ideology.  Partisan politicians, who know all too well how easy it is to score points with the media by claiming their opponents are out to poison us, blithely toss out emotion-laden propaganda like so much useless rhetorical swill. 

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This illustrates a division that is almost never illuminated by the major media—the division between "reactionary environmentalists" and "progressive environmentalists."  By and large, the former see free markets, private property, and economic prosperity as engines of environmental degradation; the latter see those factors as promoters of environmental improvement. 

The overwhelming preponderance of reliable data on air and water quality and other environmental factors in both Michigan and the nation show that, far from worsening, conditions have actually improved substantially—and are likely to continue improving.  The Engler administration, whose record no one can claim is perfect, can take some but not all of the credit due for those improvements, at least those in Michigan.  But believe it or not, not all problems originate in Lansing, and all solutions do not reside there either.

An April 2000 report from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Pacific Research Institute, "Environmental Quality 2000: Assessing Michigan and America at the 30th Anniversary of Earth Day," makes this case quite persuasively.  I am indebted to its authors—Steven Hayward, Elizabeth Fowler, and Laura Steadman—for many of the facts, figures, and arguments in this particular essay. 

Air quality improved dramatically over the past generation.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reveals that nationwide, ambient levels of all six pollutants thought to adversely affect outdoor air quality have declined significantly since the 1970s.  Between 1976 and 1997, ambient levels of ozone—the major contributor to urban smog—decreased 30.9 percent.  Sulfur dioxide levels—the primary component of acid rain—decreased 66.7 percent, while nitrogen oxides decreased 37.9 percent, carbon monoxide decreased 66.4 percent, and lead decreased a dramatic 97.3 percent.  Particulate matter, commonly known as dust and soot, decreased 25.5 percent since 1988, the first year for which particulate data are available.  Most Michigan cities not only meet the national standard, but are below the national average.

Moreover, as Gov. Engler pointed out in his January 1998 State of the State Address, "Metro Detroit and Grand Rapids have the distinction of being the first major metropolitan areas in the U.S. redesignated as reaching attainment of federal clean air standards." 

A story that made the front page of the Detroit Free Press on May 1 ("Dirty Air Is Everywhere") at first glance would seem to contradict the trends I've described here.  It alleged that air quality is getting worse, and that 17 Michigan counties failed national ozone tests recently.  It turns out, however, that the source of the information for the story was the American Lung Association, an activist group known for manipulating data which based its calculations not on the current standards first set in 1979, but on far more restrictive (and very dubious) standards opposed by Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and many others—standards that are presently under court challenge.  Use of the current standards would have shown continued improvement, not deterioration.  Moreover, ALA looked at only one measurement of air quality—ozone.  This sort of "spin" may have served ALA's agenda, but it did not serve to properly inform the people of Michigan about their improving air quality.

National water quality shows similar improvements.  Due to wastewater treatment facilities, 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.

Each year for the past decade, Michigan has been reducing threats to groundwater by removing more leaking underground tanks.  Whereas only 65 were removed in 1990, a record 1,548 were removed in 1997, and the progress on that front continues to the present day. 

There also 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.  In fact, the environmental challenge facing the Lakes today no longer comes mainly from industrial pollution or toxics, 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.

Professor Bill Cooper of Michigan State University comments, "If one wished to allocate scarce monetary and human resources so as to maximize the reduction in ecological risk per unit of resource expended, one would do more good by regulating and/or limiting the introduction of exotics than by obtaining marginal reductions in trace levels of existing toxicants."  Michigan and other states have developed aquatic nuisance management plans, and ships transiting the Great Lakes now face a bevy of requirements designed to eliminate the discharge of biologically contaminated water.

In recent years, Michigan's fish hatcheries have been renovated, a $40 million endowment fund for upgrading Michigan's parks was established from some of the proceeds from the privatization of the Accident Fund, and the state has far surpassed its original goal of having at least 200 pairs of nesting eagles within our borders by the year 2000.

The Great Lakes are a phenomenal success story in reducing persistent, bioaccumulative toxics such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), HCBs (hexachloro-benzene), and DDE (dichloro-diphenyl-ethylene).  Evidence shows a dramatic decline in the traces of these chemicals found in herring gull eggs in the Great Lakes, for example.

Unfortunately, monitoring water quality is much more difficult and costly than monitoring air quality, and the measures currently used are seriously defective. Nevertheless, Michigan has a superior record in monitoring water quality and has impressive results to report.  While all 50 states taken together assessed only 17 percent of their rivers and streams in the 1996 National Water Quality Inventory, Michigan assessed 40 percent and found 93 percent of assessed rivers, streams, and lakes to be "fully supporting," which means they are safe for swimming and fishing.

Natural resources, including forests and wetlands, are making a comeback as well. U.S. forests now cover nearly 30 percent of the nation's total land area, and have remained stable for most of the past century.  Each year the United States plants more trees than it harvests and has done so since 1950.  A full two-thirds of the deforestation experienced in North America took place between 1850 and 1910, and there is about three times more forestland in North America today than there was in 1920.  The same trends have been in effect in Michigan, where roughly 44 percent of the state is covered in forest, while only 10 percent of the state's land area is considered "developed."  Much of what is lumped under "problems of urban sprawl" are really problems of transportation infrastructure, problems that are largely the province of government policy that has either exacerbated or otherwise failed to deal with adequately.

Michigan is home to several exemplary and nationally recognized cases of citizen groups, industry, and state government working together for environmental improvement.  The Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative, for example, is cleaning up streams, restoring wetlands, building migratory bird sanctuaries, and creating nature trails and other projects.

The Michigan DEQ's Environmental Quality Report 2000 documents many other areas of the state's progress.  Work remains to be done to build on recent improvements—brownfield redevelopment, scrap tire reduction, riverbed sentiment cleanup, to name a few such areas—but the unmistakable conclusion is that environmentally, Michigan is better off today than it was 10 years ago, and getting better.

Our state is perhaps best known for the auto industry.  Many reactionary environmentalists—notably former Vice President Al Gore, whose book "Earth in the Balance" broke records for ridiculous, unsubstantiated claims and politically charged hyperbole—regard the automobile as public enemy number one.  Yet the auto industry has been at the forefront of efforts to apply technological innovation to the problem of reducing air pollution.  New automobiles today emit less than 5 percent as much pollution as they did at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, a fact that accounts for a large portion of the improvement in air quality.  To be sure, government mandated much of this innovation.  More recently, however, there are signs that the auto industry is beginning to look farther ahead than even legislation can contemplate.  Experiments with fuel-cell and other cutting edge technology suggest that zero- or near zero-emission autos are within the foreseeable future. 

Here's a calculation that is usually left out of the radical environmentalists' assessment of the impact of the internal combustion engine: the land saved and the environmental quality improvement for which the car, truck, and tractor have been responsible.  In the U.S. in 1900, there were about 1.4 million horse-drawn transportation vehicles, with the average horse consuming about five tons of feed per year and producing 12,000 pounds of manure and 400 gallons of urine a year, much of which fell on city streets.  The amount of land used for growing feedstock for horses peaked at an astonishing 93 million acres in 1915, an area roughly equivalent to all U.S. cities and suburbs today.  For taking care of all the waste from horses, the state-of-the-art pollution control technology was a broom.  Today, that waste problem is nonexistent and the car, truck, and tractor have saved about 90 million acres of land from having to be used for growing feedstock.

What accounts for the environmental gains cited above?   The seemingly obvious conclusion is to give all credit to government regulations.  A longer-term look, however, reveals a more complicated picture.  For example, studies indicate that air quality was improving rapidly before the passage of the Clean Air Act.  Why?  While regulations undoubtedly play a role, research suggests that the "wealth effect" of a growing economy is the key to an improved environment.  As the Michigan and U.S. economies grow, so does their ability to control pollution and protect resources.  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, which has driven many environmental improvements over the past 30 years.

For this reason, environmentalists should not regard economic concerns as a hindrance to effective policy, but should embrace economic growth as the key to further environmental improvements.  Moreover, if citizens want the improvement that has occurred over the past generation to continue, they will look to innovative new policies that incorporate and promote economic growth and preserve and protect private property rights.  Such policies not only best address today's environmental situation, but provide the most promising future for tomorrow's environment as well.  Let's not forget one of the most telling environmental lessons of the 20th Century, one which comes to us from decades of experience in the old Soviet empire: If you want to poison the planet, get rid of private property and put government in charge.  What no one personally owns, goes the wise adage, no one takes care of.

Economic prosperity—rooted in private property, free markets, incentive, and entrepreneurship—is the best driver of environmental improvement, not top-down bureaucratic mandates.  One doesn't have to visit poor, underdeveloped, and highly-polluted Bangladesh to see that economic prosperity and environmental improvement go hand-in-hand and that when government policy erodes the former, it also ravages the latter.  If credit is due the Engler administration for environmental improvement over the last decade, we should not forget to cite its program of tax and regulatory relief as well as its direct environmental policy enforcement. 

"Economic prosperity-rooted in private property, free markets, incentive, and entrepreneurship-is the best driver of environmental improvement, not top-down bureaucratic mandates."