Spinning the Environmental Good News
Contrary to popular opinion, sometimes there's good news about the environment -- lately there's been quite a spate of it. Some has come about through luck, some through the wisdom and forbearance of the human race, and some is completely unexplained, which leaves plenty of room for commentators to spin the environmental news, like any news, in many different directions.
One piece of good news is that whales seem to be coming back. According to Science magazine (7 January), roughly 3400 humpback whales can be counted around Hawaii now, as opposed to only 1400 ten years ago. The number of bowheads off Point Barrow, Alaska, has risen from 1500 in 1976 to 7500. There are so many gray whales off the coast of California that they may be declared no longer endangered. The global population of minke whales, about 900,000, is enough to make the International Whaling Commission consider revoking the whaling ban on that species.
The likely cause of this resurgence is the international moratorium on whaling. But whalers want us to believe that the whales have never been depleted; we've just gotten better at counting them. Environmentalists don't want to acknowledge a recovery at all, for fear it will provide an excuse to resume whaling.
The only unbiased way to report this story is to do as Science did -- point out the difficulties of taking a whale census. California grays are counted by observers in boats, who assume they see only 15% of the whales that are actually there. The sperm whale estimate comes from spotting them near the Galapagos Islands and assuming that count to be one percent of the total (because 150 years ago Yankee whalers took about one percent of their catch around the Galapagos).
Given that wide range of guesswork, the news about whales may not be real news at all.
A more definite piece of news, reported in the same issue of Science, concerns coolants that are being substituted for ozone-destroying CFCs. One class of coolants, called HFCs, is made by replacing the chlorine atoms of CFCs with fluorine atoms. Environmentalists had worried that HFCs also eat up ozone. But new tests give them a clean bill of ozone-layer health.
You could spin that one to say that environmentalists are always alarmists. Or you could say that industry lucked out with CFCs and lucked back in with HFCs. Or if you read the New York Times, which says that new refrigeration technologies, spurred by the CFC ban, may not use traditional coolants at all, you might conclude that environmental protection is a great stimulant to industrial innovation.
From the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii comes mysterious good news. Since 1958 the observatory there has measured atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas. The measurements rose relentlessly until four years ago, when the increase rate suddenly slowed. No one has any idea why. Human fossil-fuel burning, which gives off carbon dioxide, has continued to rise. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo may have had some effect, but its timing isn't quite right.
Greenhouse skeptics love news like this; it gives them a chance to ridicule the whole idea of global warming. Greenhouse believers point out that the carbon dioxide increase hasn't gone away, it's just getting worse at a slower rate.
I heard a good news story last week from a direct witness, Professor Ross Virginia of the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth, who is just back from ecological research at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. He is amazed at the progress the U.S. National Science Foundation has made in cleaning up what should, by international treaty, be kept a pristine site.
McMurdo used to have an open garbage dump. Trash used to blow around the grounds. Now every building has a row of multicolored dumpsters so the trash can be separated. Everything brought in is shipped back out. Oil spills used to be frequent; now hoses are joined more carefully and outside storage sites are lined to contain accidents. Scientists going to remote areas must carefully check laboratory chemicals in and out and even bring back their own human wastes.
The only problem with this story is that it's not yet news. PBS still airs occasional accusatory segments about the mess at McMurdo, with pictures taken several years ago.
The best news of all is a report in the December Scientific American about dropping birth rates even in some of the poorest countries of the world. Strictly speaking this is not news; it has been going on for at least a decade; but let's not quibble. Nothing could be better for the environment than a lower population growth rate.
The Scientific American authors attribute the fertility decline to family planning programs and make the case for more of them. After 12 years of weakened U.S. family planning assistance, I can see the political need for that spin. But there are many possible causes for the fertility decline. There is no scientific justification for crediting family planning alone.
You could say that the news of lower birth rates is another case of things getting worse not quite so fast. You could say it's another example of business-as-usual making the world better. Or you could admit that both the human and the natural worlds are far too complex to be encompassed by either the optimistic or the pessimistic brand of oversimplicity. It would be best if you and I and everyone could, insofar as possible, welcome the good environmental news and ponder it unspun.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)