Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Incorrect Narratives

Sometimes they are just wrong, but spoken enough take the form of dogma, and regarding the environmental record of the US, they are just wrong.

The United States and the Environment: Laggard or Leader?
By Steven F. Hayward
Publication Date: February 21, 2008

If there is one country that bears the most responsibility for the lack of progress on international environmental issues, it is the United States.
--Gus Speth, Red Sky at Dawn[1]

Sadly, our nation is also at present the biggest engine of ecological destruction on Earth, the chief (but by no means only) force keeping humanity on collision course with the natural world.
--Paul and Anne Ehrlich, One with Nineveh[2]

U.S. Given Poor Marks on the Environment
--New York Times headline, January 23, 2008

To borrow the blunt language of Generation X and the "Millennials," does the United States suck when it comes to the environment? Contrary to the perception expressed in the epigraphs above, the answer turns out to be a resounding No; the United States remains the world's environmental leader and is likely to continue as such. But to paraphrase the old slogan of the propagandist, if a misperception is repeated long enough, it will become an unshakeable belief.

Environmental improvement in the United States has been substantial and dramatic almost across the board, as my annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators and other books and reports like it have shown for more than a decade.[3] The chief drivers of this improvement are economic growth, constantly increasing resource efficiency, innovation in pollution control technology, and the deepening of environmental values among the American public that have translated into changed behavior and consumer preferences. Government regulation has played a vital role to be sure, but in the grand scheme of things, regulation can be understood as a lagging indicator that often achieves results at needlessly high cost. Were it not for rising affluence and technological innovation, regulation would have much the same effect as King Canute commanding the tides.

But in a variation of the old complaint "what have you done for me lately?" there is widespread perception that the United States lags behind Europe and other leading nations on environmental performance. This perception is more strongly held abroad than here in the United States.

Yale University's Daniel Esty, the chief author of the World Economic Forum's very useful Environmental Performance Index (EPI)--a new iteration of which appeared in January of this year[4]--notes an interesting irony on this point. In the EPI's 2006 ranking of 133 nations, the United States ranked twenty-eighth, based on the study's comparison of sixteen key indicators. When he presents these findings in the United States, Esty reports, some audiences often ask how it is that the United States scores so poorly on the rankings, Americans being used to appearing near the very top of all international rankings of good things. In Europe, Esty says, audiences wonder how it is possible that the United States scores so high in the rankings--surely there must be some dreadful mistake in the methodology that gives the United States the unjustified high rank of twenty-eighth place![5]