April 9, 1999 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Where's the Perspective?

Something sorely missing from almost every news story these days can be summed up in a single word: perspective.

While NATO forces were dropping bombs on Yugoslav military and industrial targets, for example, few if any journalists asked about the military significance of the chosen targets, how their destruction would aid the campaign, the degree to which they were damaged, or how the damage had affected Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's army. There was nary a word about civilian casualties. Yet, when three U.S. soldiers were taken captive by the bad guys, the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing went into overdrive, with features about their hometowns, families and schoolmates. Yes, we even had the obligatory photos of the folks back home tying yellow ribbons around the old oak trees.

I don't mean to minimize in any way the seriousness of what's going on in the Balkans, or the gut-wrenching agony the families of the three U.S. soldiers are going through. But at a time when half a million or more innocent people have been uprooted from their homes because of a war they had nothing to do with, this obsession with three Americans who were in the wrong place at the wrong time certainly demonstrates the media's lack of perspective.

We see that same lack of perspective in environmental reporting too.

For years we have known that weather forecasters can't accurately tell you with any degree of certainty what kind of weather you can expect two weeks from now. Just a couple of months ago, here in the nation's capital, the weather forecasters-standing guard at their Doppler radar readouts and weather charts-told us to expect maybe an inch of wet snow from the "wintry mix" passing our way. Less than 24 hours later we had seven to 10 inches on the ground.

So don't believe all the junk "forecasts" you hear about global warming. Just 20 years ago, during the Carter administration, the experts were predicting exactly the opposite-a new ice age. And on April 21, "Earth Day '99," you're sure to hear many other crackpot claims.

Boring as it may seem, we in the think tank business think there's much more to be learned from data than from many of the self-proclaimed experts. Data have no particular axe to grind. Data provide the perspective the lobbying and political classes attempt to obscure.

With thanks to our colleagues at the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) in San Francisco, I offer the following, compiled by analysts Steven Hayward and Erin Schiller from official government reports, on the terrible state of our environment. The stats can be found in PRI's fourth annual "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators."

On the filthy, dirty air we're forced to breathe: Since 1976, air pollution has decreased dramatically: sulfur oxide by 66.7 percent, nitrogen oxide by 37.9 percent, carbon monoxide by 66.4 percent, particulates (soot, etc.) by 25.5 percent, and lead by 97.3 percent.

On that filthy water coming out of the faucet in the kitchen: Forget it. Toxic discharges into the U.S. water supply are virtually nil.

On the rape of the land through deforestation: Every year since 1950, more trees have been planted in the United States than harvested. Currently forests cover nearly 30 percent of the total U.S. land area.

The point is: Before you make up your mind on an issue, look at all claims within a broader context. Try to view the issue in perspective.

There's more to most stories than the brief snippet you get on the evening news or the 600-word snapshot you read in the morning paper. Search out information on the Internet (see our web site at www.heritage.org). Try to see the issue in its proper context, within a broader perspective than "he said, she said."

And when the Earth Day babblers tell you the planet is ready to disintegrate, pour a second cup of coffee and enjoy yourself. Because you'll know better.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office