To the Editors:
Harold Henderson’s “Environment: The Manufactured Crisis” [September 16] was a good review of the popular literature, but because Henderson seems to be scientifically illiterate, he misses the true issue: the concept of net energy loss. That is, how much energy (in BTUs or calories) we use to clean up the mess we create, and who controls those energy resources.
This point is made well in his second to last paragraph–that Americans draw boundaries. Thus, we justify what we do within various boundaries. In reality, there is no boundary.
Environmental scientists don’t report the real constraints to the public, journalists interpret the constraints. If they don’t understand the issues, they misrepresent the situation (I hesitate to say “crisis”). This is why economists seem so logical.
Perhaps they shouldn’t report so much on pollution, but quality of life issues: traffic jams and amount of time spent unproductively between leisure and income-generating activities. Or, that in most less developed countries, literacy and mortality levels haven’t improved in 30 years due to REAL distribution of resources. Also, because of the lack of information, citizens in third world countries pick up our worst habits (wasteful consumption) without learning how to develop their own economies via conservation efforts.
The cost, in money, is the issue to the economists. To me, it’s whether I can afford clean drinking water.
For more information, Henderson should read Georg Borgstrom’s Too Many: An Ecological Overview of the Earth’s Limitations (Collier Books, 1969, NY).
Harold Henderson replies:
OK, there are no boundaries. Does this mean I’ll never have to hear another environmentalist complain about how overpopulated the U.S. is? Seriously, there is significantly good news around the world as well as at home. World Bank and United Nations statistics show life expectancies steadily rising on all continents since 1950, and literacy rates rising everywhere (for instance, doubling in Africa) since 1970.
Quality of life? I thought we were discussing the fate of the biosphere, but fine, let’s change the subject. What about traffic jams? Check out the fall 1991 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association: average commuter travel times to work are declining in the 20 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, including Chicago (down from 25.4 minutes in 1980 to 23.9 minutes in 1985)–probably because people are rationally choosing to live closer to their jobs. “Congestion” may nevertheless be a problem; Michaels is wise not to call it a crisis.