The other day, someone at a Christmas party mentioned off-handedly how "the air keeps getting worse and worse... with no end in sight" in America. It wasn't a preachy point, and it was entirely peripheral to the conversation, but it was out there, nevertheless.
I usually let comments like that go in casual conversation, especially when it's a stranger, since correcting facts like that inevitably puts the individual on the defensive. Then it's awkward. So it's usually best to just let it go.
This time, though, I had to interject. The air is not getting worse and worse. At all. Not even close. The very worst cities today are still better than the average cities of the 1970s. The air continues to get better. Things will continue to get better, too, even as we build new power plants and drive more cars and engage in more commerce. . .
I really don't understand the pessimism that pervades today's thinking. As long as we create the conditions for vibrant economic growth, people will solve our supposed environmental problems. That's what rich societies do-- they move from mere survival mode into problem-solving mode. Eventually, instead of solving things like "we need fewer people with polio," they start solving things like "we need more bike paths in our town." The problems of substantial gravitas begin melting into lifestyle and aesthetic problems. What seems to have happened in the environmental movement is a recognition that the environment is not on the verge of collapse, and because big problems remain in our world (to name one, terrorism), environmentalists grudgingly realize their concerns are at the bottom of the "to do" list. So, what do they do? They say the world is on the verge of collapse. Global warming will destroy civilization, flooding our coasts and drying up our plains. Our air is making us all sick. There will be no water left to drink in a few years. It will be Mad Max. A post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare.
It's just not true.
source: Joel Schwartz & Steven Hayward, Air Quality in America, Intro (Dec. 2007)
Check out the EPA's Air Trends page for more data, including this chart: