By Randy T. Simmons and Jacob Fishbeck
April 22, 2016
Today is Earth Day, a day to celebrate the fact that the environment in the United States is getting better. In 2016, we have cleaner air and water, we have more forest acres, there are more trees than any time since 1900, and our farmland is more productive than ever before.
Interestingly enough, the history of these improvements predates the history of Earth Day. In fact, there is evidence to suggest these things have been getting better for more than a century, long before the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and, therefore, before the landmark environmental acts of the ’70s.
For example, in 1900, 35 Americans per 100,000 died of typhoid and paratyphoid, eight per 100,000 died of malaria, and 12 per 100,000 died of dysentery. By 1970, the year of the first Earth Day and four years before the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act, all of those death rates had fallen virtually to zero. These data tell a story of an improving environment, which is something we all can to celebrate.
U.S. air quality follows a similar pattern. The successes many attribute to the Clean Air Act, which passed in 1970, were actually built on ongoing successes of the previous 50 years or more. That is, air quality has improved since 1970, but it was improving before 1970, as well.
The improvements that predated our landmark environmental laws were due to many factors — some were economic, others were state-level regulations and the rest were a long series of common law cases that forced polluters to recognize the costs of their actions.
Forested area in the United States is growing, as is the number of trees per acre. Agriculture, the most land-intensive human activity, is also more efficient in the United States. Production of several major crops, including corn, rice, soybeans and others, has increased more than 14-fold since 1940, while acreage of harvested land has increased by only four times.
These skyrocketing crop yields are not due to increasing fertilizer use, as the amount of fertilizer used today is only three times higher than in 1960, and has actually declined by 8 percent since 1981.
Our water is also cleaner, and despite occasional disasters like the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado and the Flint, Mich. water crisis — both attributed to the agencies that were created to protect the water supply — such disasters are far less common than they were 100 years ago. Additionally, modern technology, spurred by innovation and a growing need for efficiency, makes dealing with these environmental tragedies far easier than at any time in our history.
Improving environmental quality is a long-term trend, one that predates federal environmental policies. The federal government was late to the environmental quality party and and those who believe improvements started with federal government policies simply ignore a long and pretty great history.
Let’s take a longer view back this Earth Day and celebrate how far we have have all come in the last 100 years. By concentrating on only the years since the original Earth Day, we are missing an incredible history of environmental improvement: A history of American ingenuity and our people’s ability to be responsible stewards of the environment we all love.
Simmons, Ph.D., is director of the Institute of Political Economy and professor of political economy at Utah State University. He also serves as president of Strata, a policy research center based in Logan, Utah. Fishbeck is a policy analyst at Strata.
At Strata, we understand the power of ideas and encourage individual development through writing and creative expression. The ideas, stories, and opinions expressed in this op-ed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Strata.