The optimal and positive approach is slowly winning out over the “everything is terrible” perspective and that is certainly much closer to the visionary America of high potential and ever increasing prosperity and social success that draws the world to our shores and makes us the happiest people on the planet.
The other day, someone at a Christmas party mentioned off-handedly how "the air keeps getting worse and worse... with no end in sight" in America. It wasn't a preachy point, and it was entirely peripheral to the conversation, but it was out there, nevertheless.
I usually let comments like that go in casual conversation, especially when it's a stranger, since correcting facts like that inevitably puts the individual on the defensive. Then it's awkward. So it's usually best to just let it go.
This time, though, I had to interject. The air is not getting worse and worse. At all. Not even close. The very worst cities today are still better than the average cities of the 1970s. The air continues to get better. Things will continue to get better, too, even as we build new power plants and drive more cars and engage in more commerce.
For example, although (relative to 1980) we use more coal, drive more miles, have bigger houses with more and better appliances, and our economy is larger, the air has improved in a major way:
Credit where credit is due. Some of the improvement, the environmental movement can certainly claim. That's-- ostensibly-- their entire purpose. Some of the improvements, though, are just the result of consumers opting for more efficient vehicles and household apparatuses. And sometimes the regulations and taxes and prohibitions meant to help the environment only result in red tape and bureaucracy (and economic costs), all while the real environmental gains come from millions of individuals making millions of individual choices.
Back to the Christmas party comment: I really don't understand the pessimism that pervades today's thinking. As long as we create the conditions for vibrant economic growth, people will solve our supposed environmental problems. That's what rich societies do-- they move from mere survival mode into problem-solving mode. Eventually, instead of solving things like "we need fewer people with polio," they start solving things like "we need more bike paths in our town." The problems of substantial gravitas begin melting into lifestyle and aesthetic problems. What seems to have happened in the environmental movement is a recognition that the environment is not on the verge of collapse, and because big problems remain in our world (to name one, terrorism), environmentalists grudgingly realize their concerns are at the bottom of the "to do" list. So, what do they do? They say the world is on the verge of collapse. Global warming will destroy civilization, flooding our coasts and drying up our plains. Our air is making us all sick. There will be no water left to drink in a few years. It will be Mad Max. A post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare.
It's just not true.
I tend to think of myself as an environmentalist, but completely removed from today's movement. I reject the Marxism that pervades the modern environmental movement. On the contrary, the way we can best improve our environment is to make everyone rich enough to afford it (something that is already happening); once enough people have enough dough, they move into the next phase of human actualization. Sure, we still have to cross a few priorities off the top of the ole "to do" list, but once a critical mass of people can afford a cleaner environment, they'll go ahead and buy it.
The answer to future environmental problems will be found in the minds and efforts of entrepreneurs, who can only succeed if there are plenty of yuppies wealthy enough to afford to become early adopters for various green ideas. Sometimes I wonder how much healthier our environment would be if we had seen a GDP growth rate of just 1 or 2% higher each year, over the course of the 20th century. The U.S. could easily have a 30 or 40 trillion dollar-per-year economy, instead of a 14 trillion dollar one. Then I start thinking of how 1 or 2% each year over the next century could mean the difference of hundreds of trillions of dollars of wealth, yet how we're not always maximizing our pro-growth policies. Those hundreds of trillions in potentially-lost dollars are precisely what could produce the brilliant breakthroughs that will improve our planet.