Greener Than You Think: America’s Environmental Progress
Why wealthy societies protect the environment
The country is facing an environmental crisis.
Dirty air. Unsafe water. Sharply rising carbon emissions.
Polluting the oceans. Threatening the future of fish and wildlife species. Even potentially reopening the hole in the ozone layer.
Oh, sorry. The country we’re talking about is … China.
Oh my God, did you think we were talking about the U.S.?
No … no … Really?
How optimistic are you about the state of America’s environment? If you’re like most Americans … not very. Polling shows that nearly 60 percent of us think it’s only getting worse.i
Now, the U.S. definitely has environmental problems — most countries do. But here’s where things get tricky: The media loves bad news. But what they don’t often tell you is that for every story of impending doom that grabs the headlines … there’s also often a story of steady, unsexy progress that you never hear about.
For instance, every single politician seems to sum up the case for protecting the environment with the same phrase.
[Montage of politicians using the phrase “clean air and clean water”]
Now, when you hear that for decades at a time you could be forgiven for thinking there’s a real problem. But, actually, the state of America’s air and water is … pretty good.
America’s air quality has dramatically improved in recent decades. Since 1980, carbon monoxide emissions decreased 75 percent,ii lead went down 99 percent, nitrogen dioxide went down 72 percent, and sulfur dioxide went down by 93 percent. The result: air so much cleaner that research suggests it may have actually extended our life expectancy.iii (Even if you wouldn’t always know it in L.A).
The story with water isn’t much different. The CDC reports that America has one of the safest water supplies in the world.iv So, how do we reconcile that with horror stories like the one out of Flint, Michigan? Actually, Flint is a pretty instructive example.
The big issue there was lead leaching into the water from old pipes that were overdue for replacement. And, according to a survey of water industry professionals, this is actually the biggest issue facing the country’s water supply: not the water itself, but replacing old infrastructure that has the potential to taint it.v
One way to understand the progress we’ve made is to think about all the environmental issues you don’t hear about anymore.
In the 1970s and 80s, the country was freaked out about acid rain, precipitation that contains acidic components that can kill off trees and fish. The reason you no longer hear those concerns? Because we limited how much of the chemical compounds that cause acid rain could be released into the environment.
And we got creative about it, setting a cap on the allowable level of emissions and then allowing companies that fell under that cap to sell the rights to companies that went over — meaning you could make pretty good money by polluting less. And as a result, the levels of acid rain dropped by about 2/3 over roughly 30 years.vi
And, hey, remember the hole in the ozone layer? In the 1980s, we were all pretty sure it was going to kill us. Newsweek ran a story comparing it to “AIDS from the sky.”vii It was even alleged that the ultraviolet light that came through the hole was making sheep go blind.
(Yeah, that part wasn’t true).viii
But then we figured out that the thinning of the ozone layer was caused by a type of coolant used in things like refrigerators and air conditioners. As a result, an international treaty in the late ‘80s began phasing it out — and now the ozone layer is expected to be fully healed by the middle of this century.ix
Can we make the same kind of progress on the issues facing us today? In many cases, we already are.
Deforestation? Actually, the size of America’s forests has been basically stable since 1910 — despite the fact that the country’s population has tripled since then.x
Wildlife extinctions? 99 percent of the species placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act have been saved, though there’s still more work to do to get them off the endangered species list entirely. xi
Climate change? While you wouldn’t always know it from news coverage, America has actually cut its total amount of carbon emissions more than any other country in recent years. xii In fact, even before COVID, rates had declined to levels not seen since the early ‘90s.xiii
None of which means there isn’t still lots of work to be done. But here’s the thing: We should be confident that that work will get done. Because the consistent trend is that the citizens of wealthy, democratic societies push their elected officials to protect the environment…
…which is why many of the world’s big environmental problems come from unfree societies. Not because the citizens of those countries don’t also want a clean planet, but because their politicians don’t have to listen to them.
Which might be part of the reason that a country like China, despite its growing wealth, leads the world in things like marine waste, animal trafficking, and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, they’ve been so reckless that they even restarted the use of the substances that caused the hole in the ozone layer, threatening to reverse the progress made by the rest of the world.xiv
I mean, c’mon guys, read the room.
Bottom line: We’ve made progress that citizens of a country like China can only dream about. And while there’s still plenty of work to be done, we’ve got lots to be proud of.
We’ve cleaned up our air. We’ve saved some of our most beloved species.
And, once again, for the record … we have not blinded any sheep.
- Environment Historical Trends — Gallup Poll
- Air Quality: National Summary — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- “Fine-Particulate Air Pollution and Life Expectancy in the United States” (C. Arden Pope, III, Ph.D., Majid Ezzati, Ph.D., and Douglas W. Dockery, Sc.D.) — New England Journal of Medicine
- Importance of Water Quality — Centers for Disease Control
- State of the Water Industry: 2018 Report — American Water Works Association
- Acid Rain Program Results — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- “Life Under the Ozone Hole” — Newsweek
- “Ozone Hole ‘Innocent’ of Chile’s Ills” (Fred Pearce) — New Scientist
- International Treaties and Cooperation about the Protection of the Stratospheric Ozone Layer — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- U.S. Forest Resource Facts and Historical Trends — U.S. Forest Service, pg. 7
- “The Endangered Species Act’s Road to Recovery” (Hannah Downey) — The Property and Environment Research Center
- Carbon Dioxide Emissions — BP Statistical Review of World Energy
- Annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States From 1990 to 2020 — Statista
- China’s Environmental Abuses — U.S. Department of State
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- Gallup Poll
Environment Historical Trends
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Air Quality: National Summary
- New England Journal of Medicine
“Fine-Particulate Air Pollution and Life Expectancy in the United States” (C. Arden Pope, III, Ph.D., Majid Ezzati, Ph.D., and Douglas W. Dockery, Sc.D.)
- Centers for Disease Control
Importance of Water Quality
- American Water Works Association
State of the Water Industry: 2018 Report
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Acid Rain Program Results
“Life Under the Ozone Hole”
- New Scientist
“Ozone Hole ‘Innocent’ of Chile’s Ills” (Fred Pearce)
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
International Treaties and Cooperation about the Protection of the Stratospheric Ozone Layer
- U.S. Forest Service, pg. 7
U.S. Forest Resource Facts and Historical Trends
- The Property and Environment Research Center
“The Endangered Species Act’s Road to Recovery” (Hannah Downey)
- BP Statistical Review of World Energy
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States From 1990 to 2020
- U.S. Department of State
China’s Environmental Abuses
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “Air Quality” (Environmental Protection Agency)
- “America’s Water Infrastructure” (Pew Research Center)
- “The Political History of Cap and Trade” (Smithsonian)
- “Whatever Happened to the Hole in the Ozone Layer?” (Discover)
- “How Not to Protect Endangered Species” (National Review)
- “Do We Have to Sacrifice the Economy to Save the Environment?” (Christian Science Monitor)
- The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the 21st Century, by Ronald Bailey