SOCIAL INDICATORS 2007
There is a long history of environmentalism in American life. Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872. The Audubon Society, formed in 1905, was one of the earliest environmental groups. President Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) was probably the first "environmental president" with his conservationist policies. More modern environmental groups can be traced to events like the first Earth Day on April, 22, 1970. Conservation was reborn and concern about environmental issues become increasingly important factors in assessing quality of life.
The American experience is exemplifies what economist Indur Goklany describes as the Environmental Transition theory. The graph below illustrates what Goklany calles the Environmental Transition curve.
Those who are familiar with Kuznets Curve will recognize the similarity, except here "Time" has replaced per capita income or GDP on the X-Axis. Goklany describes the Environmental Transition hypothesis this way.
"...society is on a continual quest to improve its quality of life, which is determined by numerous social, economic, and environmental factors. The weight given to each determinant is constantly changing with society's precise circumstances and perceptions. In the early stages of economic and technological development, which go hand-in-hand, society places a higher priority on increasing affluence than other determinants, even if that means tolerating some environmental deterioration, because increasing wealth provides the means for obataining basic needs and amenities (e.g., food, shelter, water, and electricity) and reducing the most significant risks to public health and safety (e.g. malnutrition, infectious and parasitic diseases, and child mortality). Also, in those early stages, society may, in fact, be unaware of the risk imposed by a deterioration in the specific environmental impact, measured by the particular indicator in question. However, as society becomes wealthier; tackles these problems; and, possibly, gains more knowledge about the soical, health, and economic consequences of the environmental impact in question, reducing the environmental impact due to the specific indicator automatically rises higher on its priority list (even if the impact does not worsen). But because the first increments of economic activity further increase environmental impact, it becomes an even more important determinant of the overall quality of life. Accordingly, lowering the specific impact becomes even more urgent. (Goklany, 106-107)
The Kuznets Curve uses only affluence on the X axis. Goklany points to the need for sufficient time for the technology generated by rising affluence to emerge and be deployed. Consequently, technological innovation may lag to varying degrees depending on the particular set of issues a nation confronts. Furthermore, critical to the performance of the Environmental Transition Curve are democracy, property rights, and rule of law. Individuals must have just social institutions by which they can make their growing concerns felt. Russia and former Soviet Bloc nations had increasing per capita income but horrendous levels of pollution. Some Latin American countries, where aid and trade, tends to impact only the top minority of society due to corruption and inadequate government have similar problems.
The United States appears to have hit the apex of the Environmental Transition Curve in the 1950s and 1960s. As the below chart from the EPA shows, despite significant societal growth in a variety of measures, levels of pollution have continued to decline.
Emissions of the six principle pollutants dropped 54% between 1970 and 2006, despite the growth levels indicated in the chart. We have much room for improvement but we are trending in the write direction.
But it isn't only in matters of pollution that we have seen protection of the environment. Affluence and technology has led to considerable conservation of land and natural habitats. Consider the progression of the variables in the chart below from 1910 to present:
Or presented in tabular format:
Had we not experienced the scientific and technological advances we experienced over the past century (and the economic growth and affluence that made those advances possible) a land area equivalent to the area east of the Mississippi would have been needed for additional crop production. Instead, after rising to an all time high of 387 million acres in 1949 the amount of cropland has dropped to the identical acreage of 1910 while feeding three times as many people and creating an abundant excess that is shipped all around the world. The World Conservation Union estimates that habitat loss, of which agriculture is the biggest contributor, affects 85-90% of bird, mammal, and amphibian species. (Goklany 117-118) Affluence and the technology have made a significant contribution to conservation. Thankfully, the rate of global cropland expansion, which has been growing to keep pace with the population explosion over the past two centuries, began to slow in the 1960s and has nearly leveled out. Technologies and techniques learned in Western affluent societies are now having their conserving impact elsewhere in the world. We see similar patterns in water purity and forestation (there are more trees in the USA today than in 1900.)
This is not to say that there are not challenges. Carbon dioxide emissions is a new topic on the horizon. As with most environmental issues in the past, a potential threat emerges and consequences have to be sifted through a messy political process. The US did not sign the Kyoto Accord in 1997 (and correctly so I believe) and US CO2 has continued to increase. However, US CO2 emissions per capita dropped by .7% between 1997-2004 (Poland, Germany, and Brazil were the only other major nations with declines), and CO2 per dollar of GDP dropped by 6.1% (Poland, Russia, and Ukraine all had declines due to contracting economies and the United Kingdom and Germany also faired slightly better than the US.) Per capita declines precede absolute declines as a society transitions. Meanwhile, megawatts generated by hydroelectric, solar, and wind technologies are growing exponentially (Garte, 74-76). After more than thirty years with no new nuclear power plants in the US, there are applications for seven locations in 2007 and eleven more applications expected in 2008. As developed nations move further down the back slope of the environmental transition curve, their will be more technologies that can be diffused to other developing nations, thus reducing the both the height and the length of their environmental transition curves.
Finally, while this series is about American social indicators we need to say a word about raw materials. There is considerable angst that we are depleting natural resources. I have addressed this more in depth elsewhere but we need to reiterate that nothing could be farther from the truth. Commodities markets factor present and future supply and demand into prices. If we were running out, then prices would be slowly climbing. Instead, as a recent study shows, commodity prices have been declining at an annual rate of about 1.3% for the past 140 years and there is no end in site. Goklany notes that, “…in 2005, the price of copper was 1/80th of its 1800 level, aluminum dropped to a 1/40th of its 1900 price, silver declined to a 1/40th of its 1860 level, and tin to a 1/7th of its price in 1880. (99-100) With affluence and technology comes ever more efficient extraction, use and reclamation of raw materials. Now we are seeing growth in the use of renewable materials as well.
Wealth and affluence has moved us over the environmental transition curve. As environmentally conscious citizens and economic interests press their concerns we have seen an ever cleaner and healthier environment and trends indicate more of the same into the foreseeable future. The learning curve for developing nations should be less steep and of shorter duration provided sufficient political freedoms are in place for people to be able to have an impact on their societies. This is not to say that there are not challenges ahead but the overall quality of life as it relates to environment has significantly improved.
(Seymour Garte. Where We Stand: A Surprsing Look at the Real State of our Planet. New York: AMACOM, 2008.)
(Indur Goklany. The Improving State of the World: Why we're living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner planet. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2007.)