The state of the Earth (1995) | THINK TANK

The state of the Earth (1995) | THINK TANK


Ben: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. This spring marks the 25th anniversary of
Earth Day. What’s happened? What lies ahead? Will mankind overwhelm mother nature or will
new technologies and economic progress enable us to tread evermore lightly upon the earth? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
consensus are Gregg Easterbrook, author of “A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of
Environmental Optimism,” Paul Portney, Vice President of Resources for the Future. Fred Smith, President of the Competitive Enterprise
Institute, which has just issued a new book, “The True State of the Planet,” and Robert
Rapeto [SP], Vice President of the World Resources Institute, on the 25th anniversary of Earth
Day. The topic before this house, the state of
the earth, this week on “Think Tank.” Since the first Earth Day was organized in
1970 much progress has been made toward a cleaner environment. And we’ve learned a lot about the real magnitude
of some of the existing problems. First, the progress. The air over America is much cleaner than
in 1970. Sulfur dioxide emissions which cause acid
rain are down 53%, carbon monoxide down 57%, smoke and soot are down 59% and smog down
39%. Forest in America have made a huge comeback
expanding from 600 million acres in 1920 to 728 million acres today. World population more than doubled since 1950
but food production tripled. That means that for most of the world’s people,
food has become cheaper and more plentiful. In fact, the average price of food has dropped
70% over the past 25 years. Predictions that the world’s population would
about double from today’s population to about 11 billion people by the year 2100 now seem
off the mark. A recent projection by the World Bank says
global population will most likely top out at eight billion people in the year 2035 and
fall to only six billion by the year 2100. And what about global warming? Burning coal and oil boost atmospheric carbon
dioxide which traps the sun’s heat, creating the so-called greenhouse effect. Computer models had predicted that the earth’s
average temperature would increase by 0.4 degrees Celsius over the past 15 years. But now, satellite data show that temperatures
have actually dropped slightly during that time but there are serious problems. Here are two. Tropical deforestation continues at a rapid
pace due to the expansion of slash and burn agriculture by poor farmers in the third world
and our oceans are in trouble. Over-harvesting is depleting many fisheries. The first question today, if we could just
go once around the horn beginning with you Greg Easterbrook, is this, your new book is
called, “A Moment on the Earth.” And I wonder if just briefly you could tell
us what is the shape of the earth at this moment? Greg: My most basic message, Ben, is I think
we are all about to become environmental optimists. I think the public understanding of the environment
is an issue which for 25 years or longer has been driven by a constant dissent toward pessimism
and feelings of futility and decline are all going to be replaced by optimism about the
environment. I think the trends in the western world are
sufficiently positive and based on most of the positive trends that you cite based on
early forms of pollution control that were rudimentary and not too sophisticated and
yet produced excellent results, very cost-effectively. I think those trends are so positive, at least
as regards to Western World is going to make us all environmental optimists. Third world challenges, much different. Western world, good. Ben: Robert Rapeto. Robert: I think the United States and Europe
is in much better shape environmentally than the rest of the world because we started earlier
and have worked harder at cleaning up the environment. Where we have problems are in the international
environment and in the developing countries where environmental conditions are poor and
deteriorating. Ben: Paul Portney. Paul: Well, I think it’s interesting that
both Greg and Bob share my view that conditions in the United States have improved dramatically
since the first Earth Day. That seems to me the real challenge is to
find a way to have the rest of the world have their GNP per capita, their income per capita
grow the way it has in the United States without making some of the environmental mistakes
we made along the way. That’s the real challenge before us, I believe. Ben: Okay. Fred Smith. Fred: We all are agreeing I think that the
alarmism doomsday scenarios have been wrong. I think that there is a real challenge to
find out what institutional arrangements make it possible for us to do as well in other
areas as we’ve done, say, in food production. And I really believe that suggest that we
move the bureaucrats out of the environmental area a little bit more than they’ve been and
engage more people. That’s what we did to make farming such an
incredible success story over the last decades. If we began to employ some of the people power
rather than bureaucracy, I think we’ve got an excellent chance of making the third world
as successful ecologically as it is being economically. Ben: All right. Paul, you said there had been environmental
mistakes made along the way. I gather in the modern world. What were they or what are they? Paul: I think the mistakes were prior to 1970,
having neglected the fact that the production of goods and services can generate serious
environmental harms and that unless some kind of action is taken, some kind of regulatory
action is taken to make producers recognize those in product prices then we’re gonna have
damages that don’t get rolled into consumer and producer decisions. And that led to the environmental problems
that spawned the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in that first significant
decade of environmental regulation. Once we had decided to regulate, I think we
made some mistakes in the form that regulation took notably very detailed-specific command
and control-type regulation when in fact I think we might’ve done better to use economic
incentives as a means of inducing environmentally desirable behavior on the part of producers. Fred: I wouldn’t think about that. I think some of those things in our early
history of resource use were they’re from almost a 100 years before 1970. United States was sort of in a developmental
phase. We wanted to go, go develop everything. We subsidize the corridor, channelized rivers,
the BL, the Bureau of Land Management to drain swamps, forest to be cut down not economically. We weakened the right of private property
owners to defend themselves against pollution. And then after all of that, in a sense, government
induced encouragement of pollution then we turned around and said, “My goodness, we need
more government involvement.” Not only government involvement, I think did
some good but I think we neglected the role of private entrepreneurs in expanding the
role of environment. I think that’s the area I hope we revisit. Ben: Robert Rapeto, you agree with that sort
of government as villain? Robert: The government has done a lot of damage,
and in many instances, the government denied that there were risks. Remember, the Department of Energy and the
Department of Defense assured people that atmospheric nuclear testing was safe. The Department of Agriculture and the agric
chemical industry called Rachel Carson an hysterical woman for suggesting that DDT had
anything to do with reproductive failures of birds. So the government has done a lot of harm. But entrepreneurial activity in the private
sector only works in the right direction if the market signals incorporate the real costs
of various kinds of production and consumption. Greg: There are all kinds of problems with
government regulation of environmental programs. The most obvious example that we all cite
and believe in a super fund for cleaning up of toxic waste where most of the money goes
to litigation. And I think the most important message today
is that most federal government programs and state programs in the United States have worked
for environmental control purposes. We’ve gotten tremendous progress against smog
in the United States even as through the last 25 years, we have more than almost twice as
many cars as we did in the year 1970 driving more than twice as many miles as in the year
1970 and yet we have 40% less smog. We have tremendous cleanup in water pollution. One-third of rivers and lakes were safe for
fishing and swimming in 1972. Two-thirds are now. Most of our programs are working very well. And what really troubles me about the anti-regulatory
mood on Capitol Hill right now is of course there are programs like super fund that need
to be reformed but the Republicans, especially in the house, seem to want to indiscriminately
throw out every program, including the ones that have worked and most of them have worked. Fred: Let me just ask on question. Bob Rapeto mentioned Rachel Carson. I am of the understanding that you do not
share his view about Rachel Carson, which was that she was right? Greg: I think Rachel Carson was wrong in the
strict sense that the things that she predicted, the widespread extinctions of birds for example
or that’s the main one have not come true but she was wrong for a wonderful reason that
her work inspired the reforms that prevented the doomsday she foresaw. Ben: But Greg, it also did something else. And I agree that, look, it’s useful to have
people saying worry and concern, we care about the environment but everyone now cares about
the environment. We’re all in a sense environmentalist. The question is what we do about it? And I think that first generation of environmental
regulatory policies which were essentially addressing the backlog of unaddressed needs,
we’re addressing in a sense haystack problems, big lumpy problems, crude methods could work
there. We’re now in a much more complex world. We’re looking for needle in haystack problems
in a way and there, I think the crude instruments of regulation are less likely to work. We need to go through, I think devolution. The states ought to have more autonomy. You’ve said that they’ve been successful but
let’s look at, you mentioned super fund but the asbestos program which has been certainly
no success story or, in deed, acid rain. There’s a lot of problems out there and I
think we really need to be much more creative in this new generation as we go forward than
just to assume the regulations worked once they’ll work in the future. I don’t think they will. Fred: We do need to be more creative. Everybody I think is in favor of more market
mechanisms and voluntary choice and I think you can find a lot of places where that’s
going to be the next wave of environmental improvements. But we have to understand first that the first
wave worked to make us optimistic that the next wave is gonna work as well and I certainly
don’t see that understanding in Congress. Robert: But there seems to be a consensus
surprisingly even from Fred Smith that alarmism, call it Rachel Carsonism, works and is a necessary
part of this political process and yet you are saying stop the alarmism and the somehow
the progress will go on by itself. Greg: I think alarm- [crosstalk 00:13:47] Robert: Now, is alarmism or what some environmentalists
have called lying for justice, is that a necessary part of the equation? Greg: Some people will argue that scare tactics
are actually good for the system because they forced the system toward change that would
have been ignored otherwise. I think that’s not true. You eventually sacrifice your credibility. Alarmism is well-justified when a genuine
emergency exists. Robert: Well, then it’s not alarmism. Greg: We are then you argue over the word,
right. When Rachel Carson wrote vintage World War
II bombers were passing over in American cities and spraying and with aldrrin, a since banned
pesticide, spraying kids with this stuff, it was crazy. There was a reason to be upset and angry. Today when we face the environmental problems
of the West, alarmism is not called for. What you need now are rationality and optimism. Ben: Do we need hype? Paul: Well, let me mention that alarmism cuts
two ways. And I think, everybody agrees that there have
been cases where the environmental community has been unduly pessimistic in its assessment
of a problem and it’s probably goaded us into doing something that makes some sense. We should also point out though that the business
community has a tradition of saying that that next regulation is going to put us out of
business, lead to plant closures, cost product prices to double. And in those cases where we’ve been able to
see what actually happened when a program has been put into place… Ben: That’s their alarmism. Paul: That hasn’t happened either. And I would argue that there’s probably some
benefit from that kind of alarmism because on account of those claims, I think we now
pay more attention to the fact that regulation does cost money, a lot of money, $140 billion
per year in the United States. And I think that’s led people in the environmental
community now to [crosstalk 00:15:24] pay attention to the cost of environmental regulatory
programs. Ben: Are you pro alarmist? Robert: Actually where I disagree with Greg
and his book is that I don’t think that environmentalist as a group are or have been alarmist or unduly
pessimistic. I think that Greg’s book presents a caricature
of the environmental movement. I don’t know anyone, let alone the consensus
of the environmental movement who has referred to global warming as instant doomsday or who
has referred to dioxins as a hyper toxic warp speed carcinogen or who has said that nature
can only produce harmful mutations and never beneficial mutations, all of which come directly
out of this caricature. I think that environmentalist are basically
optimistic. Ben: All right. You have just been called an arch caricaturists
in your new book. Greg: Like I said, it was good enough [crosstalk
00:16:38] Ben: Why don’t you give us a short form response? Greg: An arch caricaturists. I use the term incident doomsday in my book
inadvisedly to describe what I think is the package of the worst case views of environmental
scenarios. And I think we get an awful lot of worst-case
views of environmental scenarios from institutional and environmentalism. Sometimes the worst case turns out to be true,
not often. And dioxin is a great example. If you read the history of dioxin and I present
some of it in my book, constantly described as the most unprecedented toxic ever known
to man ever to able to cause cancer with very short exposures, very low doses. Dioxin is clearly dangerous and must be regulated
but these scientific findings since then have not held up the early caricatures. Fred: It seems, Greg, I think that in a way
Bob and you, I think, come down different sides of the alarmism side but on the sort
of the same side of regulation has been a good idea but we’ve got to refine it a bit. I think we all agree with that. But in a way that alarmism has done something
I think a great disservice and by sort of creating a system of the sensational scare
of the day and EPA runs after that and then runs after another one, we have created almost
like a butterfly scenario where we leap from flower to flower never having any consistence
that are priority setting. The major challenge today is to get some kind
of rational priority setting into our environmental policies. It’s not that we’re doing a lot of sensible
things foolishly at EPA. We are doing a lot of foolish things, [inaudible
00:17:59], Super Fund, the dioxin fears. We really should find some more rational way
than politics to go around deciding what it is we want to do in the environment. It’s not as obvious as in that first generation,
we have lumpy raw sewage floating in the rivers discoloring our laundry. Today we’re dealing not with a handful of
criteria pollutants but hundreds and hundreds of things, some of which we ought to address,
some of which are trivial. Paul: And if I could, that comes back to a
point that Greg made earlier. You were critical of the Republican legislative
proposals for Regulatory Reform. There are certainly some parts of those proposals
that I’m very uncomfortable with but there’s a consistent thread through all of their proposals
including the more moderate proposal that Senator Roth has put forward that would force
regulatory agencies to use scientific evidence to help prioritize their risks more carefully. And I think that would go some ways toward
addressing this problem of not going after the most serious problems first that I think
we all think agency should do. Fred: Let me bring up one issue because several
of you have mentioned the idea that while we are making substantial progress in the
modern world, that the third world is still causing us great problems. And the keystone of that argument over the
years as I have seen it develop at least has been that there is something going on in the
third world called a population explosion which is eating up resources and causing pollution
and so on and so forth. Now let me just read you something from the
new publication of the World Bank. It’s a long thing and it says, “Thus we conclude
that without a great deal of ultimately meaningless re-computation, the UN low population projection
represents the best estimate of future population growth.” Now that means, as we said in the setup piece,
that instead of having 11 billion people a century from now, we are going to have 6 billion
give or take a billion or 2 here or there. And that was the bedrock of the whole explosion,
this argument, that it’s going up and up and up and up. Very few people were prepared to say that
curve is tilting downward which we now seem to have established. Now Bob Rapeta wasn’t that an example of alarmism? Robert: Well, Ben, I mean, I’ve also followed
the population… Ben: I know you have. Robert: …as you know. Ben: I wouldn’t have asked you. Robert: And firstly, recall that population
has been growing at faster than geometrics rates for centuries and the doubling times
of world population shrank and shrank and shrank up until very, very recently. Now it’s great news that population growth
rates have leveled off and are starting to fall. Where demographers made their mistake was
in assuming that once fertility fell to replacement level, it would stay there. But in fact, the experiences in most countries
that once fertility falls to replacement level which is about two kids per couple it continues
to fall right through replacement level and that creates the potential not only for population
stabilization at some point but also for a decline in population itself. Ben: But what you’re saying is that the alarmist
were wrong, just wrong. Robert: The projections were wrong but to
be concerned about doubling of world population in shorter and shorter periods of time, I
don’t consider to be a mistake. I think there’s substantial concern [crosstalk
00:21:39] and still are. Ben: But they were never really wrong on population,
they were wrong on food projection. They were wrong on the destruction of the
atmosphere. For whatever reasons, the idea was the only
way to get the attention of a political process was to be somewhat hysterical. Maybe they got the attention but we’ve got
the attention now. It seems to me that now a more realistic appraisal
would make sense but a political process is already drawing to action. In a sense, by locking ourselves into politics,
it seems that we would’ve locked ourself into a level of rhetoric and hysteria that’s gonna
be very hard to escape. Consider the world’s food production. It’s increased dramatically, not because politics
got smarter, not because we’re managing politically the world’s agribusinesses better but because
we got out of the way. We let people own land. We privatized the land of the world and we’ve
done a brilliant job of expanding world food production. If we can find ways of ecologically privatizing
the world of moving politics and bureaucrats out and moving people in to protect the world’s
resources, forestry and the third world, we’ll have a better world, a better environment. Greg: I want to bring the conversation back
to what’s least interesting to the American viewer and that is a third world because I
think that’s where the great moral challenge of the 21st century lies. I’ve lived in Pakistan. I’m moderately familiar with the third world-first
up. And I think it’s very encouraging that fertility
rates are declining. It shows the population will top out at a
lower level than the doomsayers predicted. But you must bear in mind that the current
world population of 5.5 billion or 7 or 8 billion where it looks like the world’s population
is going to top out is ample to ensure decades of misery in the developing countries that
can’t properly support their current populations. And I think we in the West have a moral obligation
to try to do something about it. Ben: Hold on. I want to appoint each of you dictator for
a decade of the whole world. You will do what the Napoleon was unable to
do, Caesar and whatever, but in the environmental realm. What would you do next if you could run the
show? Greg: In the West transfer… Ben: I’ll just go around. Greg: In the west transfer most programs to
private market mechanisms because I think things are sufficiently good here, we could
now do that. For the third world, I be giving away American
technology left and right. I wouldn’t be trying to sell it. I think it’s our moral obligation to give
it away. If we can spread clean technology to the third
world, and there’s a lot of indications that the Chinese who are going to swamp everything
we do in the west with pollution in the next century unless we help them are interested
in our technology, I ‘d just plain give it to them as fast as they’d take it. Ben: Bob Rapeto. Robert: If I were a dictator and could dissolve
Congress, I would immediately reduce payroll taxes and income taxes then I would replace
the revenues with taxes on energy, on waste generation and on congestion and in that way
create market signals that put our incentives where our long run interests are, encourage
those activities that make the economy more productive and discourage those activities
that make the economy… Ben: But doesn’t the market… Isn’t that by definition what a market does,
is encourage things that work? Bob: Only if prices reflect the full costs
of doing things. And clearly our coal prices do not reflect
the full cost of burning coal. Driving in on the beltway does not reflect
the costs that we impose on other people. If we can get the market signals right and
then unleash the entrepreneurs we’ll be in much better shape. Ben: Paul Portney, Resources for the Future,
it is your term turn to be dictator for a decade. Paul: Okay. Here are my two-point proposal for the United
States is first of all make more use of economic incentive based approaches to regulations
so that we use the market that’s been so efficient in producing private goods to help us get
a better quality environment. And second in the United States, return some
of the regulatory programs that have been inappropriately nested at the federal level
to the states. Moving abroad, I think the most important
thing we can do is foster the growth of democracy because I’m confident that in the long-term,
democratic governments will adopt market mechanisms that’ll increase per capita income in those
countries. And ultimately, I believe the best thing we
can do for the environment is give people a sense of economic security because once
they have that, they’ll begin to care about the importance of the environment and the
natural resource heritage that they could pass on to their kids. Ben: All right. Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute,
what does a pristine libertarian do when he is dictator for a decade? Fred: Certainly you resign your post at once. But then your advice would be to the rest
of the people is to essentially do what works. Let’s move away from the idea that daddy knows
best at government because the best approach. Devolve responsibility to states, localities
into the private sector, privatized as much as possible, free up the world’s economy so
they can become wealthier because a wealthier society is not only healthier, it’s also cleaner
for many, many reasons. The lessons America has to give to the world
is what happens when you unlease by devolution of property right how much creativity you
unlease. We need to free that up for the ecological
sphere what we’ve done to the economic sphere. That’s what we have to do if we really want
integrating the ecology and the economy. We’re not doing it by regulations. Ben: Okay. Thank you, Greg Easterbrook, Fred Smith, Robert
Rapeto and Paul Portney. And thank you. Please send any comments or questions to New
River Media, 1150 17th Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20036 or we can be reached
via e-mail at [email protected] For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW,
Incorporated, in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its
content.

One thought on “The state of the Earth (1995) | THINK TANK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *