A worker stands on a crane parked at a construction site at Keihin industrial zone in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo October 22, 2008. Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

Frances Beinecke

In 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law, launching one of the most successful public health and environmental programs in history. In the first decade that followed, in Los Angeles, the amount of pollution from ozone -- the main component of smog -- exceeded government health standards on 200 days each year. By 2004, that number had dropped to 28 days. In the 1970s, also as a result of polluted air, nearly 90 percent of American children had lead in their blood at levels higher than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed safe, and parents were alarmed by studies showing that lead interfered with cognitive development. Today, only two percent of children have such high levels of lead in their bodies. 

By controlling hazardous emissions, the Clean Air Act delivered these and many other health benefits. And it did so without curbing economic growth. The United States' GDP has risen by 207 percent since the law was passed over four decades ago. And because the law sparked innovation -- from catalytic converters, which convert toxic exhaust fumes from automobiles into less dangerous substances, to smokestack scrubbers -- pollution reductions have proved relatively inexpensive. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for every dollar the United States has spent on cutting pollution through the Clean Air Act, it has gained more than $40 in benefits. 

Yet in his recent article ("Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now," July/August 2012), Bjørn Lomborg argues that the modern environmental movement has been distracted by unproductive goals and a desire to thwart economic growth. As evidence, he cites The Limits to Growth, a book published in 1972 by a group of scientists associated with the Club of Rome. The book cautioned that exponential increases in population, consumption, and pollution would exhaust the earth's finite natural resources and trigger the collapse of the world system. Lomborg rightly points out that the Club of Rome's worst forecasts never materialized, but

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