The case for environmental optimism

Cristopher Centers

Less than a month before the moon landing, the Cuyahoga River caught fire, igniting embarrassment in Cleveland and nationwide action to clean up the nation’s rivers. Fifty-one years later, kayakers and ducks cavort on the river, which is known for its fly-fishing. In a time of wildfires, COVID-19, and other […]

Less than a month before the moon landing, the Cuyahoga River caught fire, igniting embarrassment in Cleveland and nationwide action to clean up the nation’s rivers. Fifty-one years later, kayakers and ducks cavort on the river, which is known for its fly-fishing.

In a time of wildfires, COVID-19, and other sources of gloom, I mention this because it bears remembering that environmental progress is not only possible, but that it happens. And in fact, is continuing to happen.

Consider, for example, the humpback whale. That leviathan of the deep, which can grow as much as 50 feet long, was heavily hunted into the 1960s. Since then, stocks in almost all regions have recovered well, and it is now considered a species of “least concern” by conservation authorities, with an adult population of 84,000 (and rising) as of 2018. Some have even been found off the Netherlands. Polar bears, too, have been recovering—from an estimated 15,000 in 1970 to about 26,500 today. Ditto for the Hainan gibbon (image above). There are still only 30 of these very special primates, who inhabit only one Chinese island—but that is 17 more than in 2003.

More consequentially, and perhaps surprisingly, given the amount of coverage given to over-fishing, fish stocks all over the world are recovering nicely, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences. Their conclusion, published earlier this year: “on average, fish stocks are increasing where they are assessed…Where fisheries are intensively managed, the stocks are above target levels or rebuilding.”

There are also examples of ecosystem improvement. For example, Hawaii’s coral reefs, damaged by the practice of trawling, in which heavy fishing nets scraped the ocean floor, are in better shape. Using submersibles to explore, scientists not only found the scrape marks, but also the regrowth of coral. Globally, deforestation has been largely reversed, with new growth more than replacing forest loss, a finding based on satellite data evaluated by NASA in 2018. Most of the increase came in “places that had previously been barren, such as in deserts, tundra areas, on mountains, in cities and in other non-vegetated land.”

The air itself is breathing easier. Since 1990, the concentration of lead in the United States has fallen 80 percent, for carbon monoxide, 77 percent, for sulfur dioxide, 8 8percent, for nitrogen dioxide, 56 percent, and for ozone, 22 percent. Since 2000, fine particle concentrations were down 40 percent, and coarse particle, 34 percent. That has meant hundreds of thousands of fewer premature deaths and much happier, healthier lives for millions more who have asthma, heart disease, or other ailments.

In terms of the human environment, there is also substantial good news. For one thing, we are less likely than ever to die of natural disasters. Or of hunger. Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in 1968 that “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Not in the way he predicted, he was right: although the global population has more than doubled since then (from 3.5 billion people to 7.8 billion), there has, thank heavens, been none of the mass famines Ehrlich was so sure of; indeed, the percentage of people who are chronically undernourished is the lowest it has ever been. We are feeding more people because of better use of land and technology. Here is a chart that shows how much land India used to grow wheat in 2010, versus how much it would have taken to grow the same amount in 1960. 

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And there is no reason to believe that agricultural innovation has run out of road. In December 2019, the Philippines became the first Asian country to approve the use of genetically-modified “golden rice” (it has already been approved in Australia, Canada, and the United States). As the name implies, this has a golden color; more important, it is rich in Vitamin A, a leading cause of childhood blindness. Bangladesh could be next. And genetically-modified crops have been shown to increase yields, meaning fewer pesticides and more efficient land use.

In fact, there are all kinds of weird and wonderful possibilities at work. Want to breed an endangered species? It’s been done, with the cloning of the Przewalski’s horse, from crypto-preserved cell lines. Such “genetic rescues” could diversify the genetic pool, and expand the population. It may even be possible to “de-extinct” a species—that is, bring it back to life.

Palm oil can be used as a bio-fuel, but its growth has also been implicated in the destruction of rain forests, cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. What if it could be grown in a laboratory, instead? Well, scientists are working on doing just that. Artificial photosynthesis would be nice, too, making it possible to generate renewable energy from atmospheric carbon dioxide. That would be a climate-change game-changer. It’s early days, but researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced in March that, using nanosized tubes, they have been able to perform “all the key steps of the fuel-generating reaction.” Plastics are unsightly and damaging to the oceans and their wildlife; they are also difficult to recycle. But a French specialty chemistry company, Carbios, got funding last year to build a plant, scheduled to open next year, that will use enzymes to break down hard-to-recycle PET plastics. “For the first time in the history of the plastics industry,” according to Carbios, “it is possible to recycle plastic waste to infinity…”

I am not arguing that everything is just fine. It isn’t. Populations of other kinds of wildlife are declining; ditto for tropical forest areas. COVID-19 continues to be terrible. Climate change matters, and indeed is a major threat to polar bears. Air pollution is much better in the United States and other developed countries, and much worse elsewhere. India’s particulate level, for example, is more than six times that of the United States, and five times above the levels recommended by the World Health Organization.

The point is that people and policies can make a difference. When it comes to fisheries, for example, the same report that reported encouraging progress, also noted that in areas where “fisheries management is less intense, stock status and trends are worse.” Hawaii’s coral reefs are not magically regenerating; it took decades of protection, including bans on trawling, for positive change to begin. Sixty percent of reforestation that has occurred over the past 35 years took place due to human efforts.

When the Cuyahoga was burning, I never thought it would become a favored spot for fly-fishers. Today, it is hard to see how we will get climate change under control. But we have already made huge improvements off the trajectory we were on in the early 2000s, and new technologies, coupled with determined action, may well save the day.

That is why despair, or even pessimism, is not only wrong, but dangerous, because it lends credence to the idea that actions don’t matter. They do, and they can work. They have before—and will again. 

All views are mine and not those of McKinsey & Company.

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