Popular Environmental Myths,
Part I

Resource Depletion   Overpopulation Global Warming
Ozone Depletion Declining Air Quality   Potential Food Shortages

Resource Depletion

Fact: Shortage and abundance are most easily measured by price. High and rising prices are signs of shortage; lower and falling prices are signs of ample supply. Relative to wages, 1990 prices for all natural resources in the United States were only half what they were in 1950 and just one-fifth the 1980 price. Mineral resources show a similar price decline: an index of 13 important metals and minerals show a net decline of 31 percent in real prices from 1980 to 1990. Similarly, agricultural products fell by 38 percent during the same period. Since 1980, oil prices have fallen 35 percent in constant dollars and the price of coal has dropped more than 90 percent.

Example: In 1980, Dr. Julian Simon challenged Dr. Paul Ehrlich, perhaps the most notorious of environmentalists predicting future resource depletion, to place a bet on whether or not the price of natural resources would rise or fall in a ten-year span. Ehrlich chose quantities of five metals—chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten—with a total price of $1,000. If the price of the metals was higher than $1,000 in 1990, after adjusting for inflation, Simon agreed to pay Ehrlich the difference. If the price fell, Ehrlich would pay Simon. In 1990, Ehrlich sent Simon a check for $576.07. The real prices of the metals had fallen by this amount since the bet was made.

Sources: Joseph Bast, Peter Hill, Richard Rue, Eco-Sanity. Thomas Lambert, "Defusing the `Population Bomb' with Free Markets," Center for the Study of American Business.


Ozone Depletion

Fact: Key evidence is missing that chlorofluorocarbons, found in aerosol cans and foam containers, are in fact causing significant ozone depletion and creating a hole. Between 1962 and the early 1970s, the amount of global ozone rose between 4 and 11 percent. Between 1969 and 1986, ozone levels over the Northern Hemisphere decreased between 1.7 percent and 3 percent. Since 1986, global ozone has been on the rebound, increasing steadily at 0.28 percent. If the gradual accumulation of CFCs in the atmosphere during these years had a net impact on global ozone levels, it is not apparent from this record.

Example: "Although NASA did not acknowledge it, the `danger' of an ozone hole opening over the Northern Hemisphere was discounted less than a month after the existence of the putative crisis was announced. By late February, weeks after the crisis erupted, satellite data showed that the levels of ozone-destroying chlorine monoxide had dropped significantly and provided absolutely no evidence of a developing ozone hole over the U.S. NASA waited until April 20, 1992 to announce at a press conference that a `large arctic ozone depletion' had been `averted.' In other words, no ozone hole had opened up over the U.S. Time, which `hyped' the `crisis' story on the front cover in February, buried NASA's admission in four lines of text in its May 11 issue."

Sources: Joseph Bast, Peter Hill, Richard Rue, Eco-Sanity. Ronald Bailey, Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse.


Overpopulation

Fact: World population grew at the rate of about 2 percent a year during the 1960s, the fastest in recorded history. Simple arithmetic (performed by Paul Ehrlich in 1968) showed that if this rate continued for 900 years, there would be 60 billion people on the Earth, or 100 persons for each square yard of the Earth's surface, both land and sea—creating major problems in lack of food, water and natural resources. But the growth rate slowed to 1.75 percent per year during the 1980s and is now expected to drop to 1 percent by the year 2025. A 1 percent growth rate means the Earth's population would double every 70 years. The United Nations, the World Bank, the U.S. Bureau of the Census and the Population Reference Bureau all now predict that world population will stop growing altogether in about 100 years. World population would peak at between 10 and 12 billion around 2100.

Example: Exactly how big is 10 billion people? If all the people in the entire world today (5.7 billion) came to the U.S., they could all stand inside the city limits of Jacksonville, Florida—and area less than 0.03 percent of the size of the nation. If every man, woman and child in the world was given a house the size of the average American house, they could all live in Texas. Human settlements occupy less than 1 percent of the land area of the world, according to researcher Max Singer. If the world population doubles, settlements will still cover less than 2 percent. But what about room for growing enough food? See "Potential Food Shortages."

Source: Max Singer, Passage to a Human World, Hudson Institute, Inc.

 

Air Quality is Declining

Fact: Air quality has improved dramatically since 1975, the first year for which reliable measurements are available. While emissions of some air pollutants remain higher today than in 1940, overall emissions are lower, and continue to fall. One of the main reasons for the improvement was the Clean Air Act passed in 1963 and amended in 1970 and 1990. Another reason is increased use of electricity. Electricity is replacing other sources of energy in manufacturing, services and household appliances. In 1991, for the first time, industrial, commercial and residential sectors of the U.S. economy consumed over half of the energy in the form of electricity. The third reason is that industry is using raw materials more efficiently. New technologies allow businesses to capture and recycle gases and particles that once simply escaped into the air.

Example: A new technology called "clean coal" burning eliminates up to 99 percent of potential sulfur dioxide emissions. Cars built in 1993 emit 97 percent less hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide and 90 percent less nitrogen oxide than a car built 20 years earlier. According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, "Air quality in the Reno-Sparks area has improved over the last decade. A state Bureau of Air Quality report that tracked pollution levels through Nevada between 1988 and 1995 concluded that levels of carbon dioxide and other pollutants remained well below the standard." A report from Foundation for Clean Air Progress, which tracks air quality in major cities, stated that air quality in Las Vegas is 68 percent cleaner in the past five years than between 1985 and 1990.

Sources: Reno Gazette-Journal. The Foundation for Clean Air Progress. Joseph Bast, Peter Hill, Richard Rue, Eco-Sanity.

 

Global Warming

Fact: There is considerable dissent from the popular view of global warming, a view based largely on the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. A Gallup poll conducted on February 13, 1992, of members of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society—the two professional societies whose members are most likely to be involved in climate change research—found 18 percent thought some global warming had occurred, 33 percent said insufficient information existed to tell, and 49 percent believed no warming had taken place. By early 1994, even Time magazine, which featured global warming on its cover in 1989, gave up on the theory and decided to warn their readers about a possible impending ice age. But the rising level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which could be responsible for warming, deserves continued study by scientists. It is too early to know whether man-made emissions were responsible for the very small amount of global warming that might have occurred last century, or whether a continued rise of greenhouse gas levels will affect the climate in the future. As of yet, global warming is not an environmental crisis.

Example: If a build-up of greenhouse gases leads directly to temperature increases, then temps over the past 10 year should have increased 0.5 degrees Celsius. In fact, global temps rose only by a statistically insignificant 0.07 degrees Celsius. During the last century, global temps rose just 0.45 degrees Celsius and 0.34 of that increase occurred before World War II, when man-made emissions were lowest. The observed warming in the last 55 years has been so small that temps in the Northern Hemisphere--once predicted to see the largest increases--in fact experienced no significant change.

Sources: World Climate Review, Summer 1993, Joseph Bast, Peter Hill, Richard Rue, Eco-Sanity

 

Potential Food Shortages

Fact: A group of Dutch scientists led by Dr. P. Buringh at the Agricultural University of Wageningen studied the soil, water, grade and land uses around the world to see how much land is available for agricultural use. About 30 to 50 percent of each region studied was set aside for nonargicultural use, regardless of the land's suitability for farming. The study found 8.5 billion acres of potential farmland in the world, of which only 40 percent is currently in use. Farmland now occupies less than 10 percent of the Earth's land area. This means food production could more than double with no changes in current agricultural practices.

Example: Developing countries more than doubled their food production between 1965 and 1988, an increase that outpaced their population growth. China and India, two countries where food shortages were a grim reality during the 1950s and 1960s, are now self-sufficient in grain. Further, with yields less than one-half the present average per acre in the U.S. cornbelt, they could produce enough to feed a world population of 18 billion people.

Source: Thomas Lambert, "Defusing the `Population Bomb' with Free Markets," Center for the Study of American Business. u


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