TCS Daily

On Earth Day, Teach Our Children

By Roy Spencer - April 22, 2005 12:00 AM

The arrival of Earth Day each year provides teachers with the opportunity to help educate students about environmental issues. There is no question that the Earth's inhabitants need to be good stewards of natural resources, and teaching our children about the environment is necessary part of their upbringing.

Unfortunately, too often the lesson stops short of equipping the student with the reasoning skills that will allow him or her to make informed decisions about environmental issues. "Pollution is bad, planting a tree is good" might seem like a reasonable theme, but unless we explore environmental issues more deeply, we will continue to produce environmentalists whose ideals are stopped cold when they bump up against economic and practical realities.

The adult public has learned to filter out extreme views, from any source, and environmental scares are no exception. Nevertheless, there seems to be no end to environmental mis-information available to the nation's teachers, primarily from advocacy groups whose very existence depends upon environmental scares. This perpetuates mistrust of the environmental agenda, no matter how justifiable some elements of it might be.

For instance, how many environmental information sources will advise teachers to tell their students that all human endeavors necessarily and unavoidably produce by-products (pollution)? The issue isn't whether we should stop pollution, for this is impossible. The issue is, how hard are we willing to work in order to reduce pollution?

The more we reduce pollution, the costlier the pollution-reduction technologies become. The wealth required to reduce pollution to lower and lower levels comes at the expense of other parts of the economy. Students need to be asked, what would they personally give up for a cleaner environment? Some portion of their allowance? Unless they understand that the problem can't be solved by simply turning off a "pollution valve" at factories, they won't take ownership of the issue. We all pollute, and we all have to pay to pollute less.

Fortunately, the United States, by almost any environmental measure, is cleaner now than it was forty years ago. In many cases it is much cleaner. In the mid 1960's, trash lined the highways, air pollution was so bad in some cities that we dreaded driving through (let alone living in) them. Some lakes and rivers were essentially dead from unrestricted dumping of industrial wastes. But by that time our country had achieved a level of wealth, through free-market driven efficiencies, that allowed us to invest in a cleaner environment. The Clean Air Act -- indeed, the EPA itself -- were initiated in 1970 in response to the public outcry for a cleaner nation.

If you survey the economies and environments of the world, it becomes clear that wealthier is cleaner. Where private ownership of land is allowed, the land is managed wisely, for there is no economic value in land which is destroyed. In contrast, countries where land is owned and managed by the government have a populace with no incentive to sustain it. The classic example is the English "tragedy of the commons," wherein farmers were allowed unlimited grazing of the publicly available town commons area by their livestock, essentially destroying it.

Similarly, the poorest countries generally have the worst environmental records, with subsistence-level lifestyles leading to virtual denuding of the land, as everyone scavenges for wood for fuel, or cuts down rainforest to support subsistence farming. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, stands out in satellite imagery because most of the trees there have been cut down. Furthermore, the poorest countries have the highest rates of population growth, leading to a double-whammy on the environment. One of the best things we can do for the global environment is to promote democracy and free markets, thus reducing poverty, throughout the world.

Besides pollution, another major environmental issue that has arisen in recent years is "sustainability." Can our present use of raw materials be sustained, so that future generations also have access to the same resources we have now? The trouble with the sustainability argument is that it ignores future technological advances that will either make it easier to tap into resources that are presently unavailable, or altogether remove the need for that particular resource. Indeed, we are using fossil fuels (mostly petroleum and coal) faster than they are being formed by natural processes, so eventually they will become too scarce to retrieve without great expense. But the efficient use of those resources has helped to generate wealth, which in turn has supported research and gained us new knowledge. New knowledge will then give birth to new energy technologies. In one hundred years, the widespread use of fossil fuels might well be a distant memory.

As future policymakers of this country, our students need to be made aware of these complex issues and be taught to analyze them, rather than simply repeat environmentalist rhetoric. If our youth were successfully convinced that we need to reduce our consumption of natural resources to a bare minimum (as some environmental extremists believe), then humanity might once again return to a subsistence living. As has been demonstrated by the hippies of Australia, if we neglect to teach our children, it takes only one generation to create a primitive people. While that might sound somewhat romantic, history reminds us of what life was like centuries ago. One-half of the children never lived to see adulthood, and daily life was a back breaking, disease-infested struggle. And just imagine the environmental mess we will have when six billion people live in teepees.


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