"The whole aim of practical politics," said H.L. Mencken, "is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
Almost three decades after the original Earth Day - that monument to environmental panic -it is increasingly difficult to find any hobgoblins, imaginary or otherwise. The "hundreds of millions of people" who Paul Ehrlich said would die of starvation managed to survive his prediction. The oil reserves that Jimmy Carter said would be used up almost a decade ago are still gushing at prices that, adjusted for inflation, are actually falling.
Indeed, by almost any environmental measure, the world in general and this country in particular are better off. According to a new report by the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators," the improvements are across the board. Based on data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and others, PRI has found:
* Smog levels fell more than 25 percent in this country from 1976 to 1995. Sulphur dioxide levels, a component of so-called acid rain, fell 60 percent over the same period. Carbon monoxide levels fell 64 percent, lead by almost 100 percent.
* Industrial pollution of U.S. waterways is falling. Chemical contaminants in the Great Lakes have "fallen considerably." Water quality is up.
* The forests aren't disappearing. Each year this country plants more trees than it harvests. Environmentalists complain that old-growth forests are disappearing. But they can't see the forest for the trees. Remember the scenes of pristine beauty in the movie "The Last of the Mohicans"? They were filmed in a commercial forest - one that had previously been clear cut - as opposed to a "natural" forest.
* The United States is not running out of landfill space. An area 44 miles square and 120 feet deep could accommodate all U.S. garbage for the next 1,000 years, PRI reports.
* Nor is this country is the energy hog some make it out to be. As of 1995, the United States was using less energy per capita than it did in 1979.
And so on. Not that all hobgoblins are on the endangered list. As long as Vice President Gore has something to say about it, the country will still get the willies over global warming.
It's important to keep things in perspective, though, with respect to warming. Here's what Mr. Gore said in 1992: "Scientists concluded - almost unanimously - that global warming is real and the time to act is now." Here's what Newsweek reported in 1975: "Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend . . . . But they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century [Emphasis added]." By now it should be clear that the only thing anyone can say with unanimity is that there is no unanimous long-range weather forecast or proposed response.
On the whole, then, the news is good. Problem is, not many people have heard it. In his book, "A Moment on the Earth," journalist Gregg Easterbrook recounts his surprise at his finding on page A24 of the New York Times a short news account under the headline, "Air Found Cleaner in U.S. Cities." Such treatment, he said, "suggested the world was somehow disappointed by an inappropriately encouraging discovery." Sad to say, then, there are grounds for optimism this Earth Day.
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