It's the end of the world, and I feel fine

Posted: Apr 01, 2005 12:00 AM

The bad news is that a new United Nations report says the world's coming to an end.

But, first, some good news: America's doing great!

Seriously, forests are breaking out all over America. New England has more forests since the Civil War. In 1880, New York State was only 25 percent forested. Today it is more than 66 percent. In 1850, Vermont was only 35 percent forested. Now it's 76 percent forested and rising. In the South, more land is covered by forest than at any time in the last century. In 1936 a study found that 80 percent of piedmont Georgia was without trees. Today nearly 70 percent of the state is forested. In the last decade alone, America has added more than 10 million acres of forestland.

There are many reasons for America's arboreal comeback. We no longer use wood as fuel, and we no longer use as much land for farming. Indeed, the amount of land dedicated to farming in the United States has been steadily declining even as the agricultural productivity has increased astronomically. There are also fewer farmers. Only 2.4 percent of America's labor force is dedicated to agriculture, which means that fewer people live near where the food grows.

The literal greening of America has added vast new habitats for animals, many of which were once on the brink of extinction. Across the country, the coyote has rebounded (obviously, this is a mixed blessing, especially for roadrunners). The bald eagle is thriving. In Maine there are more moose than any time in memory. Indeed, throughout New England the populations of critters of all kinds are exploding. In New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere, the black bear population is rising sharply. The Great Plains host more buffalo than at any time in more than a century.

And, of course, there's the mountain lion. There are probably now more of them in the continental United States than at any time since European settlement. This is bad news for deer, which are also at historic highs, because the kitties think "they're grrrreat!" In Iowa the big cat was officially wiped out in 1867, but today the state is hysterical about cougar sightings. One of the most annoying tics of the media is always to credit the notion that human-animal encounters are the result of mankind "intruding" on America's dwindling wild places. This is obviously sometimes the case. But it is also sometimes the case that America's burgeoning wild places are intruding on us.

Anyway, there's more good news, of course. According to Gregg Easterbrook, air pollution is lower than it has been in a generation, drinking water is safer, and our waterways are cleaner.

America's environmental revival is a rich and complicated story with many specific exceptions, caveats and, of course, setbacks. But the overarching theme is pretty simple: The richer you get, the healthier your environment gets. This is because rich societies can afford to indulge their environmental interests and movements. Poor countries cannot.

Unsurprisingly, rich countries tend to have a better grasp of economics and the role of markets, private stewardship and property rights, reasonable regulations, and so forth. With the exception of some oil-rich states, they're also almost always democratic and hence have systems that can successfully assign blame to, and demand restitution from, polluters. In socialized economies, a "tragedy of the commons" almost always arises. As Harvard president Lawrence Summers says, nobody's ever washed a rented car.

So let's get back to the bad news, the world is coming to an end. OK, not quite. But the coverage of the United Nations' new "Millennium Ecosystem Assessment" report was very close to a doomsday scenario, complete with references to "running out" of resources and the rest. And let's be fair, unlike the situation in America and Europe, there are some enormous environmental problems in the world. Even if you're a global warming skeptic, there's no disputing that such problems as over-fishing are real.

But fear not. There's some unexpected good news. The United Nations(!) seems to have some good ideas for how to solve these problems. Tim Worstall of was the first - and perhaps only - commentator to notice that the U.N. report entertains the possibility that market mechanisms - property rights, credits, trade - are solutions to environmental ills, not causes of it.

If the United Nations is actually serious - fingers crossed! - this would constitute enormous progress and a sign that the global environmental community has finally conquered what I call the cultural contradictions of environmentalism. Broadly speaking, environmentalists want to end poverty, hunger and disease, but they also want to keep indigenous cultures unchanged. But you can't have both simultaneously. It is the natural state of indigenous cultures, after all, to be constantly vulnerable to disease and hunger, and no man fighting to keep his children alive cares about "biodiversity."

For decades environmentalists pointed to various calamities and boasted that they were identifying the problems, which is the first step for providing a solution. But they were wrong; environmental distress is a symptom of political and economic corruption. There's reason to hope the United Nations has finally recognized the real problem, and that's great news.