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Best of all Worlds? Why the Earth’s Environment is Not Getting Better.

January 24, 2011

Sometimes you hear it said that we are repairing the global environment, that more forests are being planted and air pollution is being wound back. These are favourite themes of the optimists who write editorials for The Economist and climate change deniers sometimes beat the same drum.

I wish it were so.

Kenneth Brower wrote a serious and knowledgeable article in the December 2010 edition of The Atlantic criticising the views of eminent scientist Freeman Dyson. It is an outstanding piece of journalism. And he took issue with this optimism about the global environment.

I want to share it with you. Here is the relevant quote:

    It is true that the air is better now in London, and in Los Angeles too. Collars do blacken more slowly in both those places. Some rivers in the developed world are somewhat cleaner, as well: the Cuyahoga has not burned in many years.

    But it is also true that the Atlantic is afloat with tar balls, and that detached sections of fishnet and broken filaments of longline drift, ghost-fishing, in all our seas.

    Many of the large cities of Africa, South America, and Asia are megalopolises of desperate poverty ringed by garbage.

    Vast tracts of tropical rain forest, the planet’s most important carbon sink, disappear annually, burned or logged or mined. Illegal logging is also ravaging the slow-growing boreal forests of Siberia.

    The ozone hole over Antarctica continues to open every southern spring, exposing all life beneath to unfiltered ultraviolet rays. African wildlife is in precipitous decline. Desertification continues in the Sahel, turning that semi-arid zone into just more Sahara. Frogs are vanishing everywhere.

    We are in the middle of a mass die-off, the “sixth extinction,” this one caused not by volcanoes or collisions with asteroids and comets, as before, but by mankind—with species disappearing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, at 1,000 to 10,000 times the rate prevalent over the 65 million years since the previous great extinction. That one was caused by an asteroid strike—the cataclysm that ended the Cretaceous Period, killing off the dinosaurs and nearly everything else alive.

    It is wonderful that Dyson, in his trips home to London, finds less soot on his collar, but this is perhaps not the best measure of planetary health.

    (Brower’s article can be found at

  1. Geoff Mosley permalink
    January 26, 2011 12:49 pm

    While there are many that see economic growth coupled with population growth as the big problems an attack on these two can readily be seen as negative. The important thing is to outline and move for the obvious alternative – the Steady State Economy. That is the positive approach.

  2. Karen Joynes permalink
    January 30, 2011 6:22 pm

    Hello Bob,
    Great comment, especially as I am about to finish my submission on the Sustainable Population Strategy for Australia.
    Is there a reason why the panel you chaired made no reference to the 2006 State of the Environment Report?

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