Earth Day is celebrating its fiftieth birthday today, though the occasion is somewhat muted by the pandemic.

The surgical masks I am seeing people wear in my DC neighborhood this morning remind me of the first Earth Day, when people also wore surgical masks to dramatize their fear of pollution.

Global warming guru and activist Bill McKibben noticed the same thing. Interestingly, McKibben saw benefits besides nostalgia in the curent pandemic shutdown. He explained yesterday in a piece (“This Year’s Earth Day Will Be as Angry—and Clever—as the One That Started It 50 Years Ago”) in the Los Angeles Times.   

McKibben wrote:

Even better, the odd circumstances of this year’s commemoration will send another message. The air outside for Earth Day 50 will be, in most places, the cleanest in living memory. People everywhere can suddenly see vistas that had been shrouded in haze since they were born. Many people are getting, literally, their first lungfuls of truly clean air. It’s as if they’ve been put in a time machine and sent way, way back. Or, if we’re more hopeful, a few years forward.

McKibben correctly noted that we have made enormous technological strides that allow us to combat environmental challenges much better than was possible 50 years ago, but unfortunately sees this as a reason for more, not less, government control. He wrote:   

All that’s missing for rapid change is political will. And maybe the clear skies of this spring, and the overall reckoning of a deathly pandemic, will help provide that will. Who, once they’ve seen the mountains in sharp relief, wants to go back to the haze? Who, now that they have to focus on the health of their lungs, wants to breathe that crap?

Who, now that we’ve seen how fast good governments can move, wouldn’t want to use this moment to help avert the even more dangerous crises that global warming is sending our way?

When it comes to the current shutdown, McKibben isn’t the only environmentalist who sees the silver lining, without quite seeing the cloud. A story in Axios observed that the shutdown is responsible for cleaner air. Gina McCarthy, Obama EPA administrator, now president of Natural Resources Defense Council, was quoted:

I do not want us to have success this way. This is not what we celebrate. It may be a wakeup call, but man, I would have preferred a much direct way to make that wakeup call happen.

While Ms. McCarthy realizes that this is a terrible way to improve air quality, I would further argue with the underlying assumption—that this is success, in any way, shape or form.

If I were McKibben and McCarthy, I’d be worried about other insights to be gained from the current shutdown: that closing businesses has dire consequences and that the models on which we base calls for further intrusion into our economy are often flawed.

The economic and emotional tolls of the shutdown, necessary though it may be, are not going to make us hunger for more government intervention into the economy. But fortunately, saving the environment, which we all want to do, does not require joblessness, poverty, or more onerous regulation.

With apologies to Bill McKibben and Gina McCarthy, here  is better Earth Day message: as societies become wealthier and more prosperous, they are more likely to be able to work towards cleaner air and other environmental benefits. A bustling economy is good for the environment.

Steve Milloy summarizes this in “Earth Day at 50: Progress, Not Politics, Cleaned Up America:”

The Earth is greener today than it was 40 years ago when we started taking satellite photos of the planet, according to NASA. 

What is the future of the environment? No one knows for sure, but if the past is any hint of the future, more wealth, strong property rights, better education and new technologies will enable us to keep our environment clean.   

We could also use less hysteria, which just causes money to be wasted versus being spent more productively. Early hysteria about toxic wastes site (such as Love Canal in upstate New York) resulted in $50 billion being wasted litigating Superfund cleanups. A lot of sites could have been cleaned up with that money. Instead, it went to lawyers. More generally, green groups have often taken extreme positions to advocate for overregulation that has impeded environmental protection and wasted time and money. 

Radicals often attack capitalism with the line, “You didn’t build that.” On Earth Day, that should be retorted with: “You didn’t clean that up.” Environmental protection has been a group effort enabled by our wealth, culture and system of government.

Wishing you a happy, reality-based Earth Day!

Read IWF’s Policy Focus: A Realistic Approach to Climate Change.