Cleaning Up the Planet

On an Earth Day website, Americans are invited to "join millions of people and celebrate Car Free Day!" because "the growing use of unsustainable modes of transport has led to air pollution." In particular, pollutants from transport exhaust are associated with cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, asthma, and reduced lung function. Now, I'm all for taking walks; it's good exercise. But should we really be so afraid of our automobiles? Websites like these are typical of the attitude of many environmental militants. To hear them talk, we are losing the war, so to speak, on protecting our habitat. But as theologian Michael Novak notes in National Review, we have actually experienced great success in cleaning up the planet over the last one hundred years -- especially in the West. For instance, Novak cites the replacement of the horse by the automobile. Before the car, city streets were covered in tons of manure -- twelve thousand pounds a year, to be exact, from each of the 3.4 million horses on America's urban streets. All that waste product led to toxic results in congested urban areas. On hot, dry summer days when horse hooves and wagon wheels pounded the manure into dust, the dust blew into the air, fell everywhere, and was breathed and ingested by humans. Novak also notes that the automobile freed up more than 90 million acres of land that had been used to grow feed for the horses. And, Novak observes, natural gas and electricity replaced the need to burn wood and fossil fuels. Over the past century, some 500 million acres have reverted to woodland as a result. And wildlife species once on the endangered list are now thriving. When the modern environmental movement really got going, achievements were even more impressive. Clean air legislation sharply brought down six types of air pollution. Moreover, these achievements came about during a time of huge population increase. But if these triumphs come as a surprise, Novak says, it is because "environmental activists of the apocalyptic type never report it, and even get angry if anyone else does." One reason for this, writes Gregg Easterbrook in the Brookings Review, is that "environmental lobbyists intent on raising money have a stake in spinning everything in alarming terms. And when environmental lobbyists depict all news as bad, most of the media reflexively echo this line." There has been an attempt in recent years to blame pollution on the "invasion" of Western civilization into America's pristine wilderness -- you even see that in some of the children's textbooks. But it is worth noting that Western technology has solved many of the environmental problems caused by early immigration. Today, pollution takes its heaviest toll in poor countries that lack access to Western technology: nations that use primitive methods of cooking, heating, and waste disposal. I have seen firsthand the heavy smog hanging over third-world cities. So -- environmental doomsayers and their automotive phobias notwithstanding -- we have made tremendous progress in cleaning up the planet. And we ought to help our faraway neighbors by making the same technology available to them, so that together we can fulfill God's command to care for His creation. For further reading and information: Michael Novak, "Blue Is True," National Review, 10 March 2003 (as posted on American Enterprise Institute's website). Gregg Easterbrook, "Environmental Doomsday: Bad news good, good news bad," Brookings Review20, no. 2 (spring 2002): 2-5. David Austin and Molly K. Macauley, "Cutting Through Environmental Issues: Technology as a Double-Edged Sword," Brookings Review 19, no. 1 (winter 2001): 24-27. Sallie Baliunas, "The Kyoto Protocol and Global Warming," Imprimis, March 2002. BreakPoint Commentary No. 021226, "SUV Spirituality: Jesus behind the Wheel?" James K. Glassman, "Greenwar," On the Issues, American Enterprise Institute, 1 March 2003. Mark Sagoff, "Do We Consume Too Much?", The Atlantic Monthly, June 1997.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary