People, Progress and Planet – Earth Day 2005

This year, let’s remember that billions still face real, life-threatening dangers

April 22, 2005

Paul Driessen

Greenpeace co-founder Dr. Patrick Moore says the environmental movement “has lost its objectivity, morality and humanity.” This Earth Day, let us dedicate ourselves to restoring those essential virtues.

When I helped organize the first Earth Day on my college campus in 1970, I never dreamed we’d be celebrating #35 this year, or that we’d come so far in cleaning up our environment. But the improvements are remarkable.

Since 1976, airborne sulfur dioxide has been reduced 72% … carbon monoxide 76% … lead 98% – according to the Pacific Research Institute’s annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators. Automobile tailpipe emissions are down 95% from 1975 levels.

About 80% of US community water systems had no violations of health-based EPA standards in 1993. Last year, 95% had no violations.

For the past five years, our wetlands have increased by 26,000 acres a year – reversing years of decline. We’ve gone from 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles in 1965 to 7500 today, including a half dozen on the river where I grew up, less than a half mile from a big paper mill whose effluents once contaminated the area.

Progress since the “good old days” is even more dramatic. In 1905, average US life expectancy was 47 years; today it’s 78. Few homes had electricity; instead, coal and wood fires created clouds of pollution, and the average home generated 5,000 pounds of wood or coal ash a year.

Over 3 million horses worked in American cities – producing 11 million tons of manure and 9 million gallons of urine annually. Most got left on streets or dumped into rivers; during summers, manure dust was a primary cause of tuberculosis. In New York City alone, crews had to remove 15,000 horse carcasses from streets every year.

The arrival of automobiles changed all that. It also meant we no longer needed vast forage and pasture land for horses, modern farming began increasing production per acre, and we’ve been able to add a million acres of new US forestland annually since 1910.

All is not rosy, of course. For instance, Alaskan stellar sea lion populations continue to decline, though exact causes are unclear. But overall – in sharp contrast to gloomy reports from some activist groups and news media – environmental progress has been steady, not only in the US but throughout the developed world.

So celebrate! Thank an environmental movement that initiated many of these improvements, before it lost its moral compass. Try to separate our true remaining ecological problems from those that are analyzed incorrectly, exaggerated or simply concocted to promote activist agendas.

Most importantly, remember that our remaining problems are relatively minor. Today’s truly serious health and environmental problems are in the poorest countries. That’s where we should focus our attention. That’s why we should have an annual People Day, when we can resolve to address real, immediate, life-or-death problems that threaten poor nations – rather than fixate on minor, distant, fashionable, theoretical problems.

The reality is, impoverished countries have little to celebrate.

Two billion of their people still don’t have electricity. Four in ten Indian families – 150 million households – do not. In sub-Saharan Africa, it’s nine of ten families.

The consequences are far worse than merely doing without modern homes, hospitals, schools, offices and factories. These families are forced to burn wood, animal dung and agricultural waste in unventilated homes – and live with constant toxic pollution that causes up to three million children to die every year from respiratory diseases.

And still radical greens conjure up specters of catastrophic global warming to justify their demands that the Third World not build coal or gas-fired power plants. Others use Earth Day to justify their campaigns against hydroelectric projects and nuclear power. The inevitable result, of course is perpetual deprivation, dung fires, poverty, disease and premature death.

Nearly a third of the human population likewise does not have safe drinking water. Families get water from distant wells, rivers and lakes that often teem with bacteria and pollutants. As Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg points out, for the cost of implementing the Kyoto climate change treaty for just one year ($150 billion), we could permanently provide sanitation and clean, safe drinking water to everyone on the planet.

Mosquitoes, flies and fleas spread malaria, yellow fever, typhus and sleeping sickness to over a half billion people annually. Tens of millions become too sick to work, cultivate fields or care for their families for weeks or months on end. Each year, up to 4 million die.

It should be easy to control these diseases. We have the knowledge and tools – and we used them to eradicate these diseases in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia. But extreme environmentalists, and even the World Health Organization and U.S. Agency for International Development, refuse to support, promote or fund a vital weapon in this war: pesticides – especially DDT. They say the chemicals might harm fish or be detected in mother’s breast milk.

“African mothers would be overjoyed if that were their biggest worry,” says Uganda’s Fiona Kobusingye. She may not know that modern instruments can detect one part per billion – a single second in 32 years. But she knows she lost her son, two sisters and two nephews to malaria. She knows her people are fed up with the death and eco-centric attitudes.

She also knows we support a monumental double standard. Americans and Europeans worry incessantly about pesticide residues on produce, and conjectural estrogenic effects of chemicals on women. We can afford to, because we no longer have to worry about killer diseases that still ravage Fiona’s continent. And yet, we still spray pesticides to kill mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus, which kills about 100 Americans a year.

“We have to become white, before we can become green,” states a new African proverb. Poor nations must first enjoy modern technology, health and prosperity, before they can focus on concerns that are important to the world’s lucky elites.

Obviously, eco-imperialistic western standards, ideologies and priorities are not the only cause of this monumental human tragedy. War, endemic corruption, and horrid political, legal and economic systems are also to blame.

We cannot easily fix these latter problems. But we can do something about our own misguided policies. We can rein in the runaway environmental Horsemen of the Third World Apocalypse.

So celebrate our progress. But at the same time, resolve to help poor nations reach our technological, economic, health and environmental status, so that more of their children live past infancy and can enjoy some of the blessings we view as our birthright.

As Congress of Racial Equality national spokesman Niger Innis notes, “There is no more basic human right than to live. Without life, the other rights mean nothing. Saving, sustaining and improving lives is the most fundamental form of environmental justice and corporate social responsibility.”

Earth Day was originally about our planet and its people. Let’s restore that common-sense approach.


Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power ∙ Black death (

Tom DeWeese
[email protected]

Tom DeWeese is one of the nation’s leading advocates of individual liberty, free enterprise, private property rights, personal privacy, back-to-basics education and American sovereignty and independence.