Here Comes the Sun

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Earth Day, it is clear that environmental protection has been a raging success. So why do we resist the good news?
  1. Few ideas are more deeply entrenched in our political culture than that of impending ecological doom. Beginning in 1962, when Rachel Carson warned readers of this magazine that pollution was a threat to all human and animal life on the planet, pessimistic appraisals of the health of the environment have been issued with increasing urgency. And yet, thanks in large part to her warnings, a powerful political movement was born—its coming-out party, the first Earth Day demonstration, took place on April 22nd, twenty-five years ago—and a series of landmark environmental bills became law: the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973). These laws and their equivalents in Western Europe, along with a vast array of private efforts spurred by the environmental consciousness that Carson helped raise, have been a stunning success. In both the United States and Europe, environmental trends are, for the most part, positive; and environmental regulations, far from being burdensome and expensive, have proved to be strikingly effective, have cost less than was anticipated, and have made the economies of the countries that have put them into effect stronger, not weaker.

    Nevertheless, the vocabulary of environmentalism has continued to be dominated by images of futility, crisis, and decline. In 1988, Thomas Berry, an essayist popular among ecologists, wrote that "the planet cannot long endure present modes of human exploitation." In 1990, Gaylord N...