Activists will try to paint the picture today, Earth Day '98, that the environment is on a path to toxic destruction. But is it? By almost every measure, the great outdoors is cleaner and greener. Federal law has had something to do with that. But credit should also go to market-driven gains in technology.
Look at what's happening at home. ''Steel cans are 60% lighter than they were in 1955; aluminum cans weigh only two-thirds as much as they did 10 years ago; glass bottles are 30% lighter; plastic bottles are 30% lighter; and disposable diapers now use 50% less paper pulp,'' a Heritage Foundation briefing book points out.
And these products reveal just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tech-driven environmental gains.
Some innovations are so amazing that it's easy to forget how good they are for the environment.
Chances are high that your long-distance or Internet service uses fiber-optic lines - if it uses wires at all. Not only do these hair-thin strands carry more data than thought possible a generation ago, they lower the demand for copper and its mining.
Fax machines and e-mail have spared the U.S. Postal Service fleets of extra trucks and their pollution.
Personal computers have brought top-flight technologies home and let a growing army of workers leave their cars in the garage.
Rechargeable batteries likely will hasten the demise of disposable brands.
No, it's not as if corporate chiefs woke up one day as eco-citizens. Instead, more of them realize pollution is just another form of waste. They and their workers have learned that boosting profits can reap green dividends.
Take the oil industry. It kicked a nationwide oil-recycling program into high gear early this decade. Millions of gallons of used oil now get collected every year. Then, the oil is re-refined, burned as fuel or even processed and poured back into your engine.
The American Petroleum Institute says it takes 50% to 85% less energy to process used oil into lubricating oil than it does to refine crude.
Look at the high-tech sector. Compaq Computer Corp. created its award-winning Design for the Environment program to save resources at every step of a product's manufacture.
The National Association of Manufacturers will highlight industry's environmental gains this Earth Day in Washington. Some of these gains, no doubt, grew out of one federal mandate or another.
But others went way beyond what Uncle Sam sought. They show what individuals and firms can do in a free market.
Even Environmental Protection Agency head Carol Browner has marked recent Earth Days by noting how far America has come. Still, she always seems to demand more. She's overlooked the fact that federal law spurred many green gains by tackling easy-to-solve problems. Now, each added advance is tougher to come by, and costs much, much more.
An index of environmental indicators the Pacific Research Institute just published shows that industrial pollution, in the form of toxic organics, has shrunk 99% while toxic metals pollution has dropped 98% over the last decade.
Of course, this doesn't satisfy everyone. The nation's top green cheerleader, Al Gore, takes a dim view in his book ''Earth in the Balance.'' Gore wrote that as long as civilization ''with its vast technological power, continues to follow a pattern of thinking that encourages the domination and exploitation of the natural world . . . this juggernaut will continue to devastate the Earth no matter what any of us does.''
Clearly, there are marvels that Gore just doesn't see. The U.S. finds itself in the midst of a transition from command-and-control policies to market-driven environmental gains. Technology is keeping more of the natural world natural. So long as civilization lets its vast technological power lead the way, Mother Nature has little to worry about.
Copyright © 1998 Steven J. Milloy. All rights reserved. Site developed and hosted by WestLake Solutions, Inc.