In April 1970 I gave a talk in Princeton, NJ for the first Earth Day. I had some expertise in the literature of natural history, had started a 330 acre homestead community with environmental covenants, and was conducting an interstate multi-media tour about humanity and the environment sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the National Endowment for Humanities. I was also editing the newsletter for the Conservation Council of North Carolina. (I later became its president.) I had credentials, but I was hardly as famous as hundreds of other environmentalists—scientists, economists, and politicians—on stages across America. All of us were gloomy. Most environmentalists on Sunday were just as gloomy. I’m optimistic.
In 1970 Prof. Peter Gunter of North Texas State was in sync with people like biologists Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner, Earth Day organizer Dennis Hayes, and sponsor Senator Gaylord Nelson. Gunter wrote, “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”
Ehrlich predicted famine in the UK by the 1980s. Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, said that in 25 years, as many as 80% of living species would be extinct. Life Magazine predicted people in American cities would be wearing gas masks because of air pollution. David Brower, fist Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said, “ Childbearing [should be] a punishable crime against society, unless the parents hold a government license… All potential parents [should be] required to use contraceptive chemicals, the government issuing antidotes to citizens chosen for childbearing.”
I am as green as I ever was, but I am not gloomy. I’m grateful and pleased with all the progress we’ve made on cleaning up the air, reducing the use of toxic chemicals, cleaning up water supplies, and saving wildlife habitat. I am guardedly optimistic about the future.
Ironically, what has enabled and motivated most of our progress has been the very technology and economic development that so many environmentalists condemned and continue to condemn. Take the great enemy of environmentalists since Thomas Malthus in the 19th C. predicted populations would crash as human numbers outstripped food supplies. The enemy was population growth.
When I talked on the first Earth Day, conventional wisdom still held that the population of Catholic countries would never stop multiplying. Same for Africa and Asia. None of the contraceptive programs did any good except for the bureaucrats paid to run them. What created zero and even negative population growth was a single dominant factor—affluence.
Only China with its “one child” rule implemented the kind of forced contraceptive policy advocated by David Brower, and they dropped it last year.
Today India and China both export food. Today oil is not only far more abundant than in 1970, but just as cheap. Today almost all cities in affluent countries have far cleaner air than in 1970. Today many species of wildlife, rare in 1970, are not only common in the wild but in the suburbs.
The list of failed predictions of doom and the list of great improvements in our care of the environment can fill hundreds of pages. Nevertheless, 45 years after the first Earth Day, on stages across America, environmentalists are predicting imminent disasters of many kinds, the extinction of life forms, and the exhaustion of resources.
I leave it to psychologists and sociologists to explain why they insist on being gloomy despite the clear, positive trends and the achievements that they failed to predict and still refuse to see.
I am still a passionate environmentalist, living as I have for most of the past 50 years in the middle of a forest, growing my food, heating with wood, producing solar electricity, improving habitat, writing about the elegance of nature.
I am optimistic because I recognize that the supply of the most important natural resource in the world continues to expand. It is the one that has grown with the population that my green friends have always wanted to limit—human creativity.