In college, a friend of mine had this quote taped to his door: "Complacency is the evil of success." When things are going well, it's easy to slip into thinking that it will always be that way. Case in point: Around Earth Day, we saw a few articles about the perception that we no longer need Earth Day because things are going so well for people and the planet. The above quote came to mind as well as some concern over the danger in thinking that after 45 years, we no longer require a day to remind us to be good environmental stewards.
This seemed like a good time to revisit some common misunderstandings about the state of the environment and how human activity affects it.
Myth: We don't have to worry about natural resources because they are abundant and cheap
While total global food production is enough to meet worldwide demands, this fact alone does not mean that everyone on Earth has enough to eat. Think of total global food production like a pie. Slice it up to share with 7 billion of your closest friends. Now, give to your dog more than 1/3 of the pie representing food diverted for animal feed. Then, throw in the garbage some slices representing household waste. Let the remainder of your pie sit out for a few days and rot to represent the food that spoils before it reaches its destination. After you've cut away the spoiled parts, drop a slice of the pie on the floor as you carry it to the table to represent other losses. You're left with about 48% of the pie. Top the pie off with some whipped cream to represent the yield from livestock that we get back. (This accounts for about 12% of the pie, but not enough to replace the 37% it originally diverted.) All in all, you have 60% of what was "enough," and you still have the same number of mouths to feed. Now, it's easy to see how inefficiencies in the food distribution system contribute to the problem of hunger in America and abroad.
Secondary to the claim that resources are abundant is the claim that resources are more affordable than ever. This report shows that energy is certainly not more affordable year over year, and over the last 10 years, food prices have actually gone up. However, when it comes to American food and energy resources, their relative affordability can often be attributed to government subsidies, tax policies and trade practices that artificially lower prices. For example, thanks to all three of the aforementioned government practices, gasoline in the U.S. is far cheaper than any other Western nation. Nations with gas prices lower than the U.S. are OPEC members Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran and UAE as well as Malaysia.
Myth: We don't have to worry about pollution because the air and water are cleaner than ever
It's true that pollution isn't the problem it was in the 1970s and '80s. However, Earth's air and water didn't magically get cleaner. We reined in pollution. For that, we can thank the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Clean Air Act (CAA), Superfund legislation and the oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency. The CWA and CAA are among the most important and successful pieces of legislation in the nation's history. The EPA played a big part in determining what elements in the air and water were acting as pollutants and designating them as such so that it could regulate discharges of contaminants into the environment. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) or "Superfund" established a means by which to hold polluters financially accountable for cleaning up the pollution they create. By regulating pollution at the source and developing a systematic approach to determine liability and clean up existing pollution, the U.S. made huge improvements to overall public health and the state of the environment.
Studies show that this legislation directly contributed to huge reductions of primary pollutants at the same time that gross domestic product (GDP) grew by more than 200%. Not only is it possible to undo some of the environmental damage from toxic pollutants, but it can be done while growing the economy. Environmental stewardship and economic growth are not mutually exclusive, but are in fact, mutually dependent on one another. Without a healthy and productive natural environment, the economy suffers. Eco-Economy, by Lester R. Brown, is a fantastic illustration of this point.
Myth: Climate change isn't affecting natural disaster death and destruction rates
It is true that in the U.S. death rates and damage costs from natural disasters are on a downward trend thanks to early warning systems and disaster mitigation measures. However, climate-related statistics tell a different story. Flooding, heat waves and drought occur more frequently and have widespread effects on mortality and economics. Even in terms of disasters, we are already seeing a shift in historic patterns. Disasters occur with greater intensity and with disproportionately negative effects in developing countries. The recent earthquake in Nepal is a primary example, as is Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the Philippines in 2013.
When it comes to how we think about the state of the environment and our relationship to it, it's important to look closely at the facts and the context in which they are presented. It's not all doom and gloom: The success of the first Earth Day and the attention it brought to issues of pollution and responsibility show that we can turn the tide to improve environmental conditions and public health. However, we should not let past success give us a false sense of security in thinking that our problems are solved and we don't have any further work to do. Our changing world presents new environmental issues that affect billions of lives around the globe. We should be inspired by our past success to continue innovating creative solutions to these ever-evolving challenges.