Time: Tue Dec 16 16:54:17 1997
From: Paul Andrew Mitchell [address in tool bar]
Subject: SLS: "Is the World Really Coming to an End?" by Ronald Bailey (fwd)
Bcc: sls, friends

>Is the World Really Coming to an End?
>Visions of an environmental apocalypse are very popular
>-- but not very accurate
>by Ronald Bailey
>Ronald Bailey is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, a member of 
>the Society of Environmental Journalists and editor of The True State of 
>the Planet.
>I began a talk at American University recently by asking how many in the 
>audience believed that we face an imminent global ecological crisis. As a 
>science reporter who frequently speaks on college campuses, I wasn't 
>surprised that all the students raised their hands.
>I once believed that too. A generation ago brown smog clogged the air 
>over many American cities, and Lake Erie was dying. I remember my 
>high-school band trip to George Washington's home in Mount Vernon, Va. A 
>sign in the Potomac River warned that contact with the water could be 
>hazardous to your health.
>As a college student in the early 1970s, I read the experts who claimed 
>that we were poisoning the biosphere, running out of resources and would 
>soon be choking to death on pollution. The future seemed bleak.
>Yet some 25 years later I look around and, by and large, things have 
>gotten better, not worse. Pollution is still a problem, but the air is 
>much cleaner. Since 1975, sulfur-dioxide levels are down roughly 50 
>percent, carbon monoxide about 60 percent, and smoke, soot and other 
>particulates have been reduced some 25 percent.
>Water quality has also improved. The warning sign in the Potomac has been 
>taken down.
>What hasn't changed are predictions of doom. Here are six popular visions 
>of the apocalypse you may be hearing about. The evidence shows they are 
>not true.
>1. There are too many mouths to feed. Thirty years ago biologist Paul 
>Ehrlich predicted in The Population Bomb that "in the 1970s hundreds of 
>millions of people are going to starve to death." Overpopulation, he 
>claimed, would overwhelm the food supply.
>It didn't happen. World population has more than doubled since 1950, but 
>food supplies have more than tripled. Life expectancy has risen from 46.5 
>years in 1950 to more than 64 years today. This represents the greatest 
>increase in human welfare in history.
>If current trends continue, world population could top out at around 
>eight billion in 2040. Can all these people be fed? Yes, says Paul 
>Waggoner, a scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. 
>He estimates that if technology continues to improve at today's rate, it 
>will be possible to feed ten billion people on roughly the same amount of 
>land currently devoted to agriculture. As a result of improving crop 
>yields, the area that is used to grow crops--about three billion acres 
>globally--has increased little in the last two decades.
>2. Man-made chemicals are causing a cancer epidemic. This notion became 
>popular after Rachel Carson published the environmental classic Silent 
>Spring in 1962. "For the first time in the history of the world," she 
>asserted, "every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous 
>chemicals from the moment of conception until death."
>Her assertion is not true. "The vast bulk of the chemicals humans are 
>exposed to are natural, and for every chemical some amount is dangerous," 
>note Bruce Ames and Lois Gold, cancer researchers at the University of 
>California at Berkeley.
>Ames and Gold point out that "99.99 percent of the pesticides we eat are 
>naturally present in plants to ward off insects and other predators." For 
>example, many fruits and vegetables contain caffeic acid, peanut butter 
>contains aflatoxin, and white bread contains furfural. All are natural 
>carcinogens but should not scare people into giving up these foods. In 
>addition, the human body's "defense enzymes are equally effective against 
>natural and synthetic chemicals," according to Ames and Gold.
>What about the cancer epidemic? "It's not real," says Ames. While rates 
>of certain cancers (especially those connected to tobacco) have risen 
>over the past few decades, the rates of many cancers have declined in the 
>United States since 1950. Plus, the increase in the number of detected 
>cancers is due mostly to better diagnostic techniques. An article 
>published last year in Scientific American estimated that only about two 
>percent of cancer deaths in the United States are caused by 
>pollution--and that more cancer is caused by lack of exercise.
>3. Men are becoming sterile. In a recent book, Our Stolen Future, 
>zoologist Theo Colborn warned that synthetic chemicals in the environment 
>may be responsible for worldwide declines of 50 percent in human sperm 
>counts over the last half-century. Among the chemicals she names is the 
>pesticide DDT, which "disrupts the endocrine system."
>However, leading scientists do not accept as fact that sperm counts are 
>declining. Rates of infertility in the United States, noted Dr. Richard 
>Sherins in the New England Journal of Medicine, "have remained constant 
>during the past three decades."
>Moreover, levels of some of the suspect chemicals have been dropping for 
>decades. For example, one 1991 report indicated that concentrations of 
>DDT in human fatty tissue fell from about eight parts per million (ppm) 
>in 1970 to about two ppm in 1983.
>4. Extinctions threaten the balance of nature. In his 1979 book, The 
>Sinking Ark, biologist Norman Myers estimated that an average of more 
>than 100 human-caused extinctions occur each day, and that one million 
>species would be lost by century's end. Yet there's little evidence of 
>anywhere near that number of extinctions. For example, only seven species 
>on the endangered species list have become extinct since the list was 
>created in 1973.
>Biodiversity is an important value, according to many scientists. 
>Nevertheless, the supposed mass extinction rates bandied about are 
>achieved by multiplying unknowns by improbables to get imponderables.
>Many estimates, for instance, rely a great deal on a "species-area 
>equation," which predicts that twice as many species will be found on 100 
>square miles as on ten square miles. The problem is that species are not 
>distributed randomly, so which parts of a forest are destroyed may be as 
>important as how much.
>What's more, says Ariel Lugo, director of the International Institute of 
>Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico, "Biologists who predict high extinction 
>rates underestimate the resiliency of nature."
>One of the main causes of extinctions is deforestation. According to the 
>Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, what drives 
>most tropical deforestation is not commercial logging, but "poor farmers 
>who have no other option for feeding their families than slashing and 
>burning a patch of forest."
>In countries that practice modern high-yield agriculture, forests are in 
>no danger. In 1920, U.S. forests covered 732 million acres. Today they 
>cover 737 million. Forests in Europe expanded from 361 million to 482 
>million acres between 1950 and 1990.
>5. The disappearing ozone layer threatens a skin-cancer epidemic. In the 
>early 1970s atmospheric scientists theorized that refrigerants called 
>chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)--the best- known version is Freon--were 
>percolating into the stratosphere, where they destroyed ozone that blocks 
>damaging ultraviolet light from the sun. Indeed, it has since been 
>confirmed that CFCs are largely responsible for the ozone hole that 
>temporarily opens up over Antarctica every year.
>In 1978 the United States banned CFCs for use as propellants in aerosol 
>sprays such as deodorants and perfumes. International treaties 
>restricting the manufacture of CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals 
>have also been adopted, and some scientists now expect levels of these 
>damaging gases to peak at the end of this century and then begin to 
>Although skin-cancer rates are up, the increase, according to most 
>scientists, is attributable to life-style changes, not a thinner ozone 
>layer. People today spend more time outside, at the beach and wearing 
>skimpier clothing.
>6. Global warming is the most serious problem humanity has ever faced. 
>There's more hype on this environmental issue than any other. In the late 
>1970s computer models predicted that because of the heat-trapping buildup 
>of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the earth would warm up by several 
>degrees over the next century. A lot of bad weather gets linked to global 
>warming in the media, which regularly predict that more and fiercer 
>hurricanes, longer droughts and more severe rainstorms will result.
>What has actually been going on? One computer model says the earth's 
>temperature should have already increased by an easily detectable 0.3 to 
>0.4 degrees Celsius since 1979. Some satellite data, however, show that 
>the earth's temperature has actually cooled slightly over the last 18 
>years. And despite seasonal variations, the frequency of intense Atlantic 
>hurricanes and their maximum wind speed have not increased over the past 
>If climate models turn out to be correct, it may be prudent to limit 
>carbon-dioxide emissions in the future. But many experts feel there is no 
>need to rush into drastic action. "We have a decade or so to collect data 
>and refine our models before we might have to act," says Jerry North, 
>professor of meteorology at Texas A&M. There is also time for scientists 
>to develop less carbon-intensive energy technologies, which we can switch 
>to later at a lower cost.
>"Even though it will disappoint many of you, the evidence is that you 
>have a very bright future." This is how I finished my presentation at 
>American University, eliciting a few chuckles from the audience.
>On a more serious note, I asked the students to consider a radical 
>proposition: Economic growth and technological progress are not enemies 
>of the environment but are perhaps its best friends, since they allow us 
>to reduce humanity's footprint on the natural world. High-tech 
>agriculture boosts farm productivity, which means a cheaper food supply 
>and more land spared for nature. Better sewage treatment means that our 
>rivers and streams can run freer of pollutants. Catalytic converters on 
>cars and better filters on power-plant smokestacks have greatly reduced 
>smog, smoke and soot in the air.
>But only rich societies can afford to pay for these. In the end, the best 
>environmental program of all is the promotion of prosperity. 

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