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Kent Lassman is president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market public policy organization in Washington. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
After more than five decades, it is time to let go of Earth Day. Conceived by peace activists and initially promoted by international labor unions, it has been the focus of mass mobilization and awareness campaigns.
In 1970, Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin called for a national teach-in at the first Earth Day. With the confidence found naturally only among members of Congress and teenage boys, he predicted that “accelerating rates of air pollution could become so serious by the 1980s that many people may be forced on the worst days to wear breathing helmets to survive outdoors.”
He was wrong about air pollution. He was wrong about Earth Day.
Its history is littered with slogans, speeches and grand pronouncements — but not with many environmental improvements. Each year Earth Day gets its share of pageantry and more than a little propaganda.
It’s time to let it rest.
Despite the positive effects Earth Day may have had in the past to raise awareness and rally the grassroots, today we have a global class of professional activists committed to campaigning for bizarre, radical policies such as depopulation and decarbonization of the economy. These activists — and the billions of dollars they spend every year to shape public opinion in favor of more government restrictions on economic growth and mobility — are an obstacle to meaningful changes in public commitment to environmental goals.
Unlike professional activists, most people have other values in tension with their desire to protect the environment. Normal people balance multiple goals. They seek to save and invest, create food and housing security for themselves and their community, and avoid drastic restrictions on the ability to travel for work, play and to visit family.
Today we can do a lot more than we could in 1970 to improve the air, water and land around us because a society producing technological advances, paired with an increasingly wealthy population, has both the means and the motivation to prioritize environmental stewardship.
Perhaps the environmental issue of our time that has the greatest disconnect between the sloganeering of professional activists and the real world is climate change. With each passing year, greater emphasis is placed on models predicting catastrophic environmental outcomes decades in the future. However, when real-world data collected during the last 20 years is fed into these models, they fail to predict current observations about the climate, the seas or the behavior of the upper atmosphere.
The evidence does not support radical policy prescriptions that would reshape society and impoverish billions of people. That doesn’t mean we don’t have problems or room for improvement. The best approach to global challenges such as climate change is adaptation.
The Dutch famously adapted the lowlands through geo-engineering and dykes. More recently, GMOs have improved food production by improving habitat, soil and water conservation. They have the potential to reduce reliance on fertilizers and pesticides. Economic growth and stability provide the means to develop and deploy new technologies that rely on fewer natural resources.
But adaptive solutions require the creation of new wealth. Without new wealth, win-win solutions are nearly impossible to find because political decisions consistently take from some to benefit others.
Adaption is a strategy that adds new resources to the fight. These resources become available because adaptation prioritizes growth and innovation. It views poor people moving into a stable middle class as a solution, not a problem. By its very nature, it is hyper-local, because we know every community does not face the same ecological challenges. It shuns the apocalyptic hyperbole of the contemporary environmental movement and Earth Day campaigns. It requires clear-eyed assessments of the world as it is.
All living things, even people whom we love very much, must die. Many years ago, my father took me aside before we drove to a quiet country cemetery for the funeral of a beloved elderly neighbor. I was a young boy, nervous about death. My father calmly explained that death is a part of life. It is natural.
What is true for all that lives is also true for everything we create. Each club, business, organization and institution comes to the end of a natural life cycle. It is a lesson we should all take to heart. It means that sometimes we must adapt strategies based on new evidence and let go of cherished institutions.
It is time to refocus on what works, and that means letting go of Earth Day.