Earthday: Much to Celebrate, More to Do

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

On earthday many environmentalists shout, "Repent, the end is near. Humans are destroying the planet." They will argue that our farms and wildlands are disappearing at an increasingly rapid rate due to urban sprawl. That Americans' continuing love affair with the car and the more villainous sport-utility vehicle is causing unimaginable levels of air pollution. That our rivers, streams and lakes are unsafe.

The good news is that each of these claims is false, so celebration is in order. Even so, there is more to do if we wish to ensure a healthy environment in the 21st century.

Despite numerous reports on the pace of urban growth, urban land remains a very small part of overall land use.

  • Only about 5 percent of the nation's land is developed, and three-quarters of the population lives on 3.5 percent of the land
  • Farmland loss has fallen from a 6.2 percent decline in farmland per decade in the 1960s to 2.7 percent in the 1990s.

By contrast, rural parks and wildlife areas have increased as dramatically as urbanized land.

  • More than three-quarters of the states have more than 90 percent of their land in forests, cropland, pasture, wildlife reserves and parks.
  • Ten times more land is set aside in state, federal and private nature preserves, parks, forests, wilderness areas and as open range than has been developed.

Not only are our open spaces well protected, but U.S. air and water quality have improved dramatically during the last 20 years. For instance, according to the Pacific Research Institute's 1999 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, major air pollutants have declined dramatically. Sulfur dioxide levels have decreased 66.7 percent, carbon monoxide by 66.4 percent, and lead by 97.3 percent. Our waterways are also improving with the release of organic wastes reduced 46 percent and toxic metals by 98 percent.

Therefore, earthday festivities are justified. However, if environmental progress is to continue we need a principles that build on our present successes.

First, the federal government should adopt an environmental Hippocratic oath: "First, Do No Harm." Many government programs encourage or directly cause environmental harm. For example, the federal policies contribute to so called "urban sprawl." Often, family farms are sold to housing developers when a farmer dies. His heirs, facing a huge tax bill, sell the farm for subdivisions. Ending the death tax would allow those who inherit land to keep the family farm intact.

Unfunded federal mandates also contribute to urban sprawl. For instance, when the federal government specifies the treatments to be used when cleaning local hazardous waste sites rather than simply requiring that a certain standard of cleanup be achieved and leaving it to the cities to find the least costly method of reaching the goal, then critical funds are wasted. Such mandates force cities to raise taxes or take money from core city services - causing schools to deteriorate, police substations to close, libraries and firehouses to shut their doors and roads to develop potholes. When this happens cities cease to be fun places to live in and raise families and taxpayers escape to suburban developments.

Second, government programs must recognize that a healthy environment depends on a healthy economy. Poor countries have the worst environmental problems. For example, poverty-stricken Haiti has the highest infant mortality rates in the Americas because less than 30 percent of its rural citizens have access to safe drinking water. In China, citizens are still suffering from decades of command-and-control economic policies. Untreated waste from China's state-run factories make more than a quarter of its lakes and rivers unsuitable even for irrigation. And, the World Health Organization ranks China's air as the world's worst.

The wealth created in market economies makes environmentally sensitive technological innovations possible, and citizens in wealthier societies spend more on environmental quality.

Finally, since most environmental problems are purely local they call for local solutions. In recent years federal agencies have become enmeshed in purely local environmental matters. Urban sprawl is one example of this trend - the Clinton administration is proposing to spend upwards of $10 billion on local land-use issues. Superfund is another.

Superfund was supposed to provide temporary emergency federal funding to clean up chemical waste dumps. In the 19 years since its inception 1,405 sites have been listed on the National Priorities list, but only 183 sites have been cleaned up and removed from the list.

Local efforts at environmental improvement succeed where federal efforts have failed. In just three years of existence, Pennsylvania's land recycling program has cleaned 426 of the 784 of the contaminated sites entered in the program. While only 13 of the 111 federal Superfund sites in Pennsylvania have been certified as ready for reuse.

Our earthday celebrations, well deserved as they are, should be tempered with thoughts for future environmental progress. Our best hope for continued environmental improvement is for the federal government to get out of the way. This would better ensure that citizens have the wealth necessary to maintain environmental progress and that communities have the flexibility to respond to environmental problems in a timely manner.

This Opinion Editorial ran in The Washington Times on April 22, 1999.