It is Earth Day once again, so we should brace ourselves for the usual round of predictions from self-proclaimed experts about the impending environmental disasters facing our planet. Fortunately, almost all of these doomsday scenarios turn out to be wrong, because they seldom account for technological advances, innovation and the power of free markets.
Consider the article "A Blueprint for Survival," authored by Edward Goldsmith and Robert Allen for The Ecologist in 1972, the same year that the first United Nations conference on the environment was held. "A Blueprint for Survival" included dire predictions that the world demand for oil would outstrip supply before the year 2000 and that severe food shortages would occur by 2002.
Neither calculation was correct. New oil discoveries continued in the years following 1972. Oil prices have risen recently, but these higher prices will eventually make recovery of oil from oil shale and oil sand more economically feasible, helping once again to boost supply. Similar advances in technology have prevented food shortages by increasing the amount of food that can be produced per acre of farmland.
Still, the gloomy prophecies usually drown out the good news, and the average citizen can be forgiven for underestimating our environmental progress. Fortunately, in 1999 the Michigan Legislature passed Public Act 195, which requires the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to work with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to prepare biennial reports on the state’s environment. The law also calls for the departments to use scientifically sound environmental indicators and methodologies.
The third biennial report required under that law has just been published. By most environmental measures, Michigan is doing well. Here are some of the report’s highlights:
Land cover: Between 1982 and 1997, there was an increase of 538,000 acres of forest on nonfederal rural land in Michigan (1997 is the year of the most recent survey). In addition, the loss of wetlands has declined dramatically in Michigan and across the nation compared to previous decades.
Bald eagle populations and contaminant levels: The health and size of the bald eagle population are good indicators of water contamination, since the bald eagle is at the top of the food chain for aquatic ecosystems. The DNR tracks bald eagle nests and reports that occupied nests have recovered from a low of 50 in 1961 to a high of 427 in 2004. Further, the DNR reports that the average number of young in the nests has increased by 50 percent since 1961. Although mercury levels in bald eagles have remained relatively constant during the same period, PCB levels have dramatically decreased.
Air quality: Michigan’s air quality continues to improve. Carbon monoxide levels across the state have decreased over the past decade to about one-third of the maximum amount considered safe under the Clean Air Act. Concentrations of lead in the air are about one-fiftieth of the CAA maximum; nitrogen dioxide levels are less than one-half of the CAA maximum; and sulfur dioxide levels have fallen to about one-fourth of the CAA maximum. Ambient levels of particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in size have also declined during the last decade, and Michigan is in compliance with CAA standards.
Ozone levels have continued to trend down during the last decade, despite an increase in vehicle miles traveled on roads in Michigan and the rest of the United States. Some 25 Michigan counties are out of compliance with CAA ozone standards, but this springs from the recent adoption of a new and tougher ozone standard, not from higher ozone levels.
Rivers: Most of the rivers surveyed annually between 2000 and 2003 do not show trends for a return to the higher phosphorous and mercury levels of prior decades.
Climate: Statistical analysis of meteorological data indicates that Michigan’s climate has not changed significantly in the last 55 years.
Radioactivity: DEQ monitoring indicates that during the last 25 years, levels of radioactivity in milk have remained below minimum detectable levels — a contrast to the period between 1960 and 1980, when the levels were significantly higher due to atmospheric nuclear testing.
The improvement in Michigan’s environmental indicators does not mean no environmental challenges exist. The introduction of exotic terrestrial and aquatic species has changed ecosystems around the state. According to the DEQ-DNR report, at least 47 exotic terrestrial plant and animal species, including the sea lamprey, the Eurasian watermilfoil and the zebra mussel, have successfully entered the Great Lakes Basin. The emerald ash borer, which was first detected in 2002, has had a devastating impact on ash trees in the state. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at least 162 exotic aquatic plant and animal species have established themselves in the Great Lakes Basin since the 1800s.
Most efforts to control exotic species have proven unsuccessful, and with global trade and travel increasing, it may not be possible to stop the spread of exotic species. Before requiring additional controls and instituting new programs, Michigan officials should carefully weigh the costs and the benefits of these efforts — and policymakers certainly shouldn’t let doomsday scenarios drive their decisions.
While not all environmental problems have been solved, environmental data indicate that Michigan has made, and continues to make, real progress. As we contemplate the environment on Earth Day, we should take time to celebrate that success.
Russ Harding, a former director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, is senior environmental policy analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.
 A study by the federal government has even suggested that the amount of wetlands may have increased in the United States in recent years.