Not perfect, but improving.
That was the verdict of the Environmental Protection Agency's first-ever comprehensive assessment of America's air, water and land.
Air pollution has decreased 25 percent in the last 30 years, even as the nation's population, economic output and energy use have grown substantially.
The volume of toxic chemicals released has been cut almost in half just since 1988.
And, the drinking water of 94 percent of Americans meets federal health standards, up from 79 percent a decade ago.
Indeed, there is much to learn-most good, some not so good-from the report, which fulfilled EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman's promise to deliver a summary look at the nation's environment before she left office.
There is also much to learn from the reaction to the report. Greg Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council complained of its "high degree of political content." Phillip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, called it a "message memo from the Bush campaign" that "found every rosy statistic about the environment that the … administration could find."
"This report looks backward when we also need to be looking forward to protect our air, water and land," said Ed Hopkins of the Sierra Club's environmental quality program.
True, the report includes no policy prescriptions. It is a snapshot, not a road map. And, as Whitman said, it made clear "that there is plenty of work left to do."
What these groups really didn't like about the report were its findings. And why was this? "This report belies the scare tactics of environmental groups, who sing the constant refrain that, for a variety of reasons, things are getting worse, threatening the nation's health and well-being," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
One has to wonder if the entire environmental movement is approaching a tipping point. Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, says as the Hard Green Left "increase their extremism and partisanship, they reduce their credibility on environmental issues." And he may be right. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., both candidates for their party's presidential nomination, declined to attend or be associated with a recent League of Conservation Voters candidate forum. This would've been unthinkable for a Democrat running for president in 2000.
Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, has left that organization and formed another, GreenSpirit, because he became dissatisfied with a movement that seems geared to fight over, but not solve, environmental problems.
"The environmental movement abandoned science and logic somewhere in the mid-1980s, just as mainstream society was adopting all the more reasonable items on the environmental agenda," Moore says. "Political activists were using environmental rhetoric to cover up agendas that had more to do with class warfare and anti-corporatism than they did with the actual science of the environment. To stay in an adversarial role, those people had to adopt ever more extreme positions because all the reasonable ones were being accepted."
The Bush administration is certainly not in the hip pocket of the Hard Green Left. But it is serious about environmental policy. It plans to spend $1.7 billion-up 2 percent over the previous year-on climate change research. It has resisted wholesale policy changes until this research has been completed. That's as it should be. Before we spend billions to solve a problem, we ought at least to make sure the problem exists and that our actions will fix it.
We need a responsible environmental movement in this country to keep us moving toward cleaner water and air and better use of land. We don't need anti-corporatists cloaking themselves in the environment. We don't need extremists who would rather scream than offer meaningful suggestions. We've heard enough of what this entire movement is against. It's time for them to embrace reasonable, science-based solutions.
Charli Coon is an energy and environment analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the Knight Ridder Tribune wire