A new United Nations report – North America’s Environment: A Thirty-Year State of the Environment and Policy Retrospective – slams the residents of this continent as “energy hogs”, whose rapacious rates of consumption are undercutting advances in environmental quality. The report itself holds more gaps in logic than a block of Swiss cheese contains holes, but its central fallacy lies in the contention that wealthy societies by definition pursue materialistic values.
In objective assessments of environmental quality, Canada and the United States have made, and continue to make significant gains. Indicators of air and water quality, forest growth and habitat protection for other species show steady improvement. The figures don’t lie.
In Canada, air quality has improved an average of 41% since 1974, with lead emissions down by 88%, carbon monoxide by 74%, sulphur dioxide by 61% and particulates by 53%. Since 1980, documented violations of local water quality standards have declined 11% and the Great Lakes contain dramatically fewer pollutants like phosphorus and PCBs. Almost all urban wastewater is now cleansed before it returns to lakes and rivers. We lose more of our forests to insects and fire than to harvesting, and overall tree cover is expanding, not contracting.
In the U.S., gains in environmental quality between 1980 and 1999 have proceeded at an even faster rate. In both countries, and in Mexico, the amount of land set aside for parks, wilderness and wildlife has increased significantly, and critical wetlands habitat shows no decline.
What is the U.N. talking about? The new report doesn’t challenge the facts, it simply ignores them. “In many instances, gains made in arresting environmental pollution and degradation have recently been eroded by choices related to consumption increases and population growth,” it says. Our “wasteful penchant” for driving automobiles and living in bigger houses located in suburbs, it contends, is proof that something is out of whack. In other words, a wealthier living standard is in itself wrong, even if it doesn’t degrade our surroundings.
North America is criticized because it with 5% of the world’s population it consumes a quarter of the world’s energy production. But that comes with being a dynamic economic powerhouse – we produce an even larger proportion of the world’s GDP and all that energy is manufactured in order to consume it. Nor is it about to run out. The world is awash in energy resources, available to anyone who wishes to use them.
We are guilty, says the UN, because we build three times as many houses as we did 30 years ago, as if living in Third World shantytowns were somehow preferable. “Although today’s cars are 90% cleaner than those of the 1970s, U.S. citizens now drive on average twice as many kilometres as they did in the 1970s,” the study says. Should we work hard to stay at home?
The advances that our market economy bestows are well documented. In the 20th century, real GDP growth per capita tripled from 1900 to 1950, and then tripled again between 1950 and 2000. And the increase in wealth did not benefit just a few, it spread throughout society. The average citizen now enjoys amenities unimagined by the richest royals a century ago. To focus, as the UN report does, on just the material indicators of progress, might suggest that we have all turned into crass materialists. But that is not the case.
In a recent article in Reason magazine, Michael Cox and Richard Alm, an economist and business writer based in Dallas, looked at the non-material advances made by our culture during the consumer boom. (Their statistics are based on U.S. trends, but applies here as well.) They found that:
- The average work week shrank from 59 hours in 1890 to 40 hours in 1950 and to 34 in 2001.
- Time devoted to holidays doubled since 1950.
- In 1950, the average citizen spent 55% of waking hours in leisure activity, now it is 70%.
- The arts, entertainment and recreation industries have expanded exponentially, with amusement parks tripling and health and fitness facilities doubling since 1970.
- The work environment has improved rapidly, moving from repetitive, exhausting and often dangerous situations into clean, well-lit and comfortable conditions.
- The number of workers with flexible work schedules doubled between 1985 and 1997, and statistics on occupational injuries and illnesses are at an all-time low.
Longer productive lives have become safer and more convenient ones. Tolls from accidental death and disease have steadily declined, as have the risks of travelling and even those associated with natural disasters. As the variety of consumer goods proliferated, the time required to obtain them declined. In short, as a more prosperous society, we now can pursue other values than material ones. The success of the consumer economy has freed us to fulfill non-material goals of all kinds, even spiritual ones.
Our economic system, Cox and Alm explain, “provides much more than the goods and services we consume; it furnishes ingredients of a balanced life that are often overlooked in discussions of economic performance.” These include leisure time, pleasant working conditions, safety, variety and convenience. And a cleaner environment.
Instead of disparaging the market economy for its very success, the U.N. would serve poor nations better by identifying the fundamentals that promote progress of all kinds, material and non-material.
The glass is not half empty. It’s half full.