Professor Beisner is on the faculty at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia and is the author of Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990). He has done research into global environmental trends for over eight years.
Lately thousands of people across America, including me, have received a mailing asking us to become members of The Christian Society of the Green Cross, a new organization addressing ecological problems. People should think hard before joining or donating.
The recruitment/fundraising letter tries to establish the need for the organization by making claims about ecological crises. The claims are, without exception, subject to serious doubt.
• Since 1945, Americans have consumed more of the world’s resources than have all previous generations who have ever lived on the planet put together. “We have used more than our fair share” (emphasis original). Here’s a new twist on an old complaint. Ordinarily we are told that Americans use “more than our fair share” of the world’s resources because we use more per capita than people in other countries. Now it is because we use more than our ancestors used. In either case, the argument is a classic non sequitur.
Americans do use more of some resources per capita than people in most other countries. And we do use more per capita than people of the past. But we also produce more resources per capita than people in most other countries and than people of the past. And, indeed, we consume no more than we produce. The long-term downward real price trends (for a truly representative example, inflation-adjusted copper prices fell by about 70 percent, and its price divided by wages by about 99 percent, from 1801 to 1990) of extractive raw materials (mineral, plant, and animal) show that our consumption of resources neither is outpaced by our production of them nor interferes with the ability of others to consume or produce them. In this case, the empirical claim (a misleading one at that) is logically irrelevant to the moral charge based on it.
• “Every day Americans turn 9 square miles of rural land over to development.” Precisely what this means is difficult to guess, since—depending on who uses the term—”development” might mean making anything from a housing tract to a park. Furthermore, such raw numbers become significant only when set in a larger context.
The United States comprise 3,536,338 square miles of land, of which about 97 percent is undeveloped (“developed” land being defined by the U.S. Bureau of the Census as including urban and built-up areas in units of ten acres or greater, plus rural transportation). The conversion of 9 square miles of rural land each day therefore translates into 3,285 square miles per year. At that rate, total undeveloped land would be reduced by only about 9 percent—to about 88 percent of total land—in a hundred years.
Actually, the Green Cross’s land-conversion figure is probably low. From 1960 to 1990 the conversion rate was about double what the Green Cross claims as the present trend. But there is good reason to expect that as U.S. population stabilizes and continues to become more concentrated in cities the conversion rate will fall yet more. Also, from 1960 to 1990, during the same period as the rapid conversion to developed land, the National Wildlife Refuge system grew from about 15 million acres in 1960 to about 95 million acres in 1988; the National Parks system from about 20 million to about 70 million acres; and total public recreation lands from about 225 million to about 375 million acres. Certainly the data do not indicate a crisis of land conversion.
• “Every year, our agricultural practices waste over 1,000,000 acres of topsoil through erosion.” We cannot know what the Green Cross means by “wasting” an “acre” of topsoil. Taken literally, their statement implies that every year erosion eliminates about a million acres of usable agricultural land. But that is certainly not true.
Probably this clumsily worded claim is meant to convey information about an amount of topsoil lost per year through erosion from all acres under cultivation. But it fails to communicate because topsoil is not measured in simple acres but in tons or cubic feet. (An acre of topsoil 1/16-inch thick, after all, is considerably less by weight and volume than an acre of topsoil 5 inches thick.) Nor does this statement tell us whether this is gross or net loss.
The latter distinction is crucial. Because of routine erosion-control measures, on almost all cropland in the United States new topsoil formation (from the combination of plant fiber decay and breakdown of deeper, denser soil and rocks) roughly matches loss from erosion, yielding almost no annual net change in topsoil. This is consistent with the fact that over the last 50 years higher and higher percentages of U.S. cropland have met the “prime” grade according to the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and with rising yields per acre. It should be no surprise. After all, soil is the farmers’ most important resource; it is to be expected that they would use that resource wisely.
• “As there are more people, there is less farmland on which to grow food.” The implication is that there is a cause and effect relation between the first and second halves of this sentence, but in fact there is not. American farmers plant fewer acres not because there are fewer acres available to plant but because agricultural production is so high that prices won’t support cultivating more acres. While harvested U.S. cropland declined by 11 percent from 1978 through 1987, total crop production rose by about 25 percent. Thus, total yield rose by about 40 percent.
• “We are using up our [agricultural] resources in a way that cannot continue.” Rising yields, declining losses from erosion, and rising quality of our nation’s agricultural soils indicate precisely the opposite.
• “Within the lifetime of a child born in this decade, virtually all of the world’s petroleum will be burned.” The same sort of predictions have been made about running out of oil for nearly a century, and always they have proved false. They are contradicted by (a) failing long-term real prices of petroleum (down about 70 percent from 1870 to 1990) and (b) rising world oil reserves (up from about 100 billion barrels in 1943 to about 10 trillion barrels in 1989).
• “Still common minerals will be exhausted [in a lifetime], such as copper, tin, zinc, lead and nickel.” But as for petroleum, so also here falling long-term real prices and rising reserves indicate the opposite. Despite intervening consumption, known reserves of copper rose by 179 percent from 1950 to 1970; of tin, by 10 percent; and of lead by 115 percent. I don’t have handy access to figures for nickel, or to more recent figures for any of the minerals named, but I am confident, on historical and theoretical grounds, that we face no reasonable prospect of exhausting any of these minerals.
• “Water is increasingly tainted with chemicals.” But in fact, the vast majority of these chemicals are harmless, and the percentage of the world’s people with access to safe water has risen dramatically in the last century and continues to rise with increasing speed.
• “Over 60 percent of the world’s great forests have been cut.” Yes, and 100 percent of last year’s wheat crop was cut in a single year! Yet next year there will be a whole new crop. Forests and wheat are analogous; the principal difference is that trees grow larger and more slowly. What the Green Cross alarmists don’t mention is that total world forested area and total growing board feet of wood both are greater now than they were 50 years ago-and on the increase. And as plantation forestry increasingly replaces harvesting natural forests, pressure on natural forests will decline even More.
• “Atmospheric levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide are 26 percent higher than pre-industrial concentrations and continue to climb; the results will be higher temperatures.” Perhaps (data for the past are debatable), perhaps (data for the future are not yet in and projections differ widely), and perhaps (climatologists differ in their estimates of how much and whether global average temperatures will rise based on various assumptions of carbon dioxide increase).
But the letter does not mention (a) that roughly two-thirds of the apparent .45 degree C. increase in global average temperatures between 1880 and 1990 was attributable to natural causes, (b) that almost all of the total increase occurred before 1940, i.e., before the sharpest increases in carbon dioxide, indicating that there is not a direct correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature, and (c) that the most recent and refined models predict that most temperature increase will occur in the winter and at night, yielding little or no detrimental effect on ice caps, sea levels, and agriculture, and at the same time yielding slightly longer growing seasons, better agricultural yields with less water consumption (from higher carbon dioxide concentrations, crucial to photosynthesis and water retention), and less need for heating in winter.
• “The ozone shield in the upper atmosphere is thinning. . . .” There is a slight downward trend in stratospheric ozone concentrations for the period 1957-1992, but it is not known whether that trend is down from historically normal levels or from historically high levels. We simply don’t know, and not knowing is not grounds for taking any particular action. (Data don’t go back earlier than the 1950s, and 40 years is statistically insignificant as a sample of a dynamic system that is thousands or tens of thousands—let alone millions or billions of years old.)
• “. . . the result is increases in skin cancers.” No reliable data back this claim. Furthermore, the skin cancer associated with increased ultraviolet B exposure (resulting from ozone depletion) is mostly nonmalignant, and the increased cancer risk associated with the worst-case ozone depletion scenarios is about equivalent with the increased risk involved in moving 60 miles nearer the equator or a thousand feet higher in elevation—a risk so small as not to figure in the vast majority of decisions about where to live.
• “Entire species of plants and animals are vanishing.” Perhaps, but the most thorough attempt at a worldwide study of field data on extinction rates—Tropical Deforestation and Species Extinction, edited by T. C. Whitmore and J. A. Sayer (London and New York: Chapman & Hall, 1992), commissioned by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and by no means skewed by an anti-environmentalist bias—generated this general reckoning (in the foreword) by IUCN Director-General Martin Holdgate:
The coastal forests of Brazil have been reduced in area as severely as any tropical forest type in the world. According to calculation, this should have led to considerable species loss. Yet no known species of its old, largely endemic, fauna can be regarded as extinct. Genetic erosion has undoubtedly taken place, and the reduced, remnant populations may be much more vulnerable to future change, but the study illustrates the need for very careful field documentation to compare with calculation in this and other situations.
Repeatedly the book’s many authors state that, expectations to the contrary, field evidence for extinctions in recent decades is slight to non-existent.
None of the above implies either that Christians have no stewardship responsibility for the earth or that real problems don’t exist. There are real problems, and Christians do have responsibility. But the assignment of stewardship over the earth was given in the Garden of Eden; claims of crisis, true or bogus, are unnecessary to remind Christians of that calling. And when an organization cries “Wolf!” too frequently, it loses credibility.