To the Editor:

I am pleased that in his review of my book The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet ("Better and Better," July/August 2007), James Surowiecki agrees that from a historical perspective the state of the world has improved. However, I am disappointed that he missed some of my most important points -- as evidenced in particular by his claim that I believe progress is "inevitable." Nothing could be further from my views. I note on page 110 of my book, "Because economic growth and technological change are not inevitable, environmental cleanup and environmental transitions are, likewise, not a foregone conclusion." I reemphasize this point at other places, and the book ends with these words: "But technology is not enough; we also need economic development. Although there are no guarantees, acting together, they -- more than anything else -- offer the best hope for technological progress, without which we cannot expand current limits to growth."

Surowiecki also claims that under my environmental transition hypothesis, environmental cleanup happens "naturally." He argues that such cleanup is not the "inevitable product of a strong economy" and may not occur without "a strong state that is accountable to its citizens." I say as much in my exposition of the hypothesis. I note that one reason for the environmental transition that leads to cleanup is that "a democratic society, because it has the political means to do so, will translate its desire for a cleaner environment into laws, either because cleanup is not voluntary or rapid enough, or because of sheer symbolism. The wealthier such a society, the more affordable -- and more demanding -- its laws."

Surowiecki also declares that my own evidence shows that emissions of many air pollutants peaked around 1970, after that year's Clean Air Act was passed, and that afterward rivers and lakes became more swimmable and fishable. But this law was enacted after major gains in reducing the public health impacts of air and water pollution had already been secured; these laws did not accelerate improvements in environmental quality. Moreover, emissions are not the best measure of the impacts of air pollution, especially with regard to public health. That is why the Environmental Protection Agency's national ambient air quality standards, which specify whether outdoor air quality is in the healthy range, are measured in terms of concentrations of pollutants in the outdoor air, rather than emissions. Long-term data indicate that for the most significant pollutants, major improvements in outdoor and indoor air quality preceded the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Regarding water pollution, I note that federal laws did indeed improve fishability and swimmability, but deaths due to water-related diseases had been reduced by 98-100 percent between 1900 and 1970, before the enactment of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Although the 1970s environmental laws did bring some benefits, some of the most significant cleanup had occurred before they took effect, and their "command-and-control" regulatory approach cost more than more flexible approaches (such as emissions trading or environmental taxes) would have.

Finally, I would dispute Surowiecki's characterization of me as a "wide-eyed" optimist. I am no more convinced than he is about the inevitability of progress. Economic and technological progress are valuable because they advance environmental and human well-being. Unfortunately, they are not inevitable.

  • Former Visiting Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Precautionary Principle: A Critical Appraisal of Environmental Risk Assessment