Earth Day, Not Doomsday

View of Africa and Saudi Arabia from Apollo 17. Probably the most requested picture of the Earth, this picture was taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts as they left earth orbit en route to the Moon. Taken on Dec. 7, 1972, it was the first time that the trajectory of an Apollo mission enabled a view of the south pole.

Today is Earth Day, which provides doomsayers an opportunity to predict wholesale destruction of Earth and the end of humanity. But on this Earth Day, as in years past, such predictions bear no basis in fact. By all indicators, the environment in Michigan and the nation as a whole is vastly improved over past decades.

Until fairly recently, environmental quality has been measured by anecdote more than empirical data. Long-term trends of pollution levels have gone largely unpublicized, and those who see government as the best protector of the environment have emphasized the numbers of enforcement measures rather than the actual condition of the land, air and water. Such politicized analyses are poor indicators of environmental progress.

More scientific sources of information do exist. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) have amassed real data to document long-term trends. Citizens would do well to peruse the EPA’s "Draft Report on the Environment," as well as the "Environmental Indicators Report" published annually by the MDEQ. The Pacific Research Institute and the American Enterprise Institute began publishing an "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators" a decade ago, well ahead of recent government efforts. On the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy published an assessment of Michigan’s environmental quality. All four reports document significant improvements in environmental quality.

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Among the highlights:

  • Air Quality. According to EPA data, ambient air pollution levels decreased dramatically between 1976 and 2002. Ozone levels are down 31 percent, sulfur dioxide 70 percent, and carbon monoxide 75 percent. This improvement in air quality coincides with economic growth and increases in vehicle miles traveled, undercutting the claims of some environmental groups that deteriorating air quality necessitates stricter emissions controls.

  • Water Quality. Michigan invests heavily in monitoring water quality, which also continues to improve. Phosphorus and mercury levels remain static, and lead levels are decreasing in the state’s inland lakes. Meanwhile, state officials have documented a dramatic increase in the number of occupied bald eagle nests, which have risen from 50 in 1962 to 388 in 2002. Increased nesting is a good indicator of Great Lakes water quality because raptors top the food chain and subsist mainly on fish and waterfowl. The EPA also reports a substantial increase in the number of drinking water systems with no violations of health-based standards — from 79 percent in 1993 to 94 percent in 2002.

  • Toxic chemicals. There has been a 55-percent decline in the volume of toxic chemicals emissions over the past 15 years. This is an astounding accomplishment considering that the industries tracked have increased their industrial output by 40 percent in the same time period. This accomplishment is the result of productivity gains and technological improvements, factors often ignored by the mainstream environmental groups that stress regulation as the most effective method of environmental protection.

So why do many Americans seem pessimistic about the state of the environment? A number of factors are likely at play, including media preference for bad news over good, and the skill of special interest groups to market gloom as a means of fund-raising.

But on this Earth Day, we can, in fact, celebrate major improvements in environmental quality. While not every environmental problem has been solved, a great deal has been accomplished in the three decades since the first Earth Day.

It is important to remember that although government programs have played a part, the lion’s share of improvement has resulted from market-driven advances in technology. If given the freedom to innovate without government interference, these advances will provide ever greater environmental protection.


Russ Harding, former director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, is senior environmental policy analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit research and educational institute. He is the recent author of "Seven Principles for Selecting a New DNR Director."