The trouble with Earth Day, which we mark this week (April 22), is that it has a powerful hold on crazies. Crazies on the left and crazies on the right.
That certainly is not what Sen. Gaylord Nelson had in mind when he inaugurated the first Earth Day in 1970. The senator, and others, hoped that Earth Day would attract a serious examination of the stresses on the Earth. Instead, it seems to attract stressed people.
From the left come the neo-agrarians, the anti-capitalists, the no-growth proselytizers, and the blame-America-first crowd. From the right come the supporters of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-business phalanx that is in deep denial about man’s impact on the environment, and libertarians who refuse to believe that governments can ever get anything right, or that government standards can be beneficial.
The fact is that a great majority of Americans are deeply concerned about the environment and maintaining the quality of life that has been a hallmark of progress in the 20th and 21st centuries. This majority includes electric utility executives, oil company CEOs, and the trade associations to which these industrial captains belong.
It is notable the extent to which the energy industries have signed onto the concept of global warming and other environmental degradation. They know that their activities often collide directly with the environment and they are, often to the surprise of the environmental community, keen to help. British Petroleum is pouring millions of dollars into solar power and hydrogen. John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Company, the U.S. division of Royal Dutch Shell, is retiring early to devote himself to the task of alerting Americans to their energy vulnerability and to the environmental story.
Sure, it took industry a long time to get on the environmental bandwagon. It is the way of industry that it initially resists any innovation that might cost money or involve difficulty. Later it buys television advertising, pointing to its own virtue when it has capitulated.
The introduction of double-hulled oil tankers in domestic waters is a clear example of this: conversion in the face of necessity. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, the government mandated double-hulling, the tanker industry moaned, and oil spills in domestic waters declined by 70 percent. The cost of double-hulling is balanced out by the lack of payouts for spills. Double-hulling ships, like removing lead from gasoline, introducing the catalytic converter, and banning hydrofluorocarbons in propellants and refrigerants, are major American environmental successes. We led the world.
But if you listen to the critics, you would think that the United States was always on the wrong side of the environmental ledger.
The problem is we live well and we consumer a lot of energy and a lot of goods in our routine lives. There are about 21 gallons of gasoline in a 42-gallon barrel of oil. If you calculate your own daily gasoline usage, you will come up with a pretty frightening number over your lifetime. Likewise, coal burned for lighting, heating and cooling. Residents of New York City, who live on top of each other and do not drive very much, use about half of the energy of suburban households.
For a serious improvement in the environment, just from an energy consumption standpoint, we need to generate electricity by means other than burning fossil fuels (nuclear and wind), introduce more electric-powered public transportation, and substitute electric vehicles for hydrocarbon-powered vehicles. The technology is in sight for all of these. The problem is that the political will is distracted by the pressure groups on the left and the right.
Human impact on the environment can be disastrous or benign, and even beneficial. The towpath along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Washington, D.C. started out as a purely commercial intrusion on a river bank, but now it is a recreational magnet. The dams along the Colorado River have boosted growth in the West, but the river has paid a price. Seattle City Light, the utility that serves the Seattle area, is now carbon-neutral because of the large amount of generation it gets from wind and hydro. There is a debate whether damming rivers is justified; but compared with other ways of producing large quantities of electricity, it is relatively benign.
Farming is an intrusion into nature—a constructive one. The challenge for the Earth Day advocates is to find other constructive intrusions.