Our Improving Environment
SEPTEMBER 01, 1970 by ALEXIS MILLER
[Editor's note: for the graphs Mr. Miller mentions, please see the September 1970 pdf.]
Mr. Miller is Executive Vice-President of the Badger Meter Manufacturing Company in Milwaukee. This article is from a talk presented on several occasions in recent months.
In the beginning and for thousands of years, man’s environment was extremely hostile, barely yielding enough sustenance for survival. Man, clearly, was at the mercy of his environment.
However, at scattered times and places throughout history, man has demonstrated an ability to adapt and to substantially control and improve his environment.
Environment is usually thought of in physical terms such as air, water, climate, food and shelter, other people, natural resources, and the like. But in considering total environment I would add those conditions that have affected the achievement of the historic goals of men which have been and still are: freedom and the opportunity to improve their well-being—as they see it—not as someone prescribes it for them. I mentioned occasions in history where men and life flourished.
These included Sumer, Athens, Carthage, Rome, Venice, Florence, Kiev, various Islamic centers of the Middle East, England, and America. The conditions that were present in each of the instances were freedom of action and commerce as well as security of the lives and property of the citizens.
Free men have always reacted creatively to a hostile situation.
Problem and Thesis
Today we seem to be in an age of crises: international, crime, youth, housing, population, food, and pollution.
A generation ago it was the school shortage, automation, why can’t Johnny read, the sputnik gap, and others. Every generation has had its crises which is partly a result of the headline syndrome (every day there must be a headline).
A current crisis that is causing concern among many people is our alleged deteriorating environment. I disagree with their concern and would like to present and support the following thesis:
Man’s total environment has been improving from the time he developed the first tools and, during the past generation, the rate of improvement has increased.
I mentioned some examples where mankind flourished and where there was, at least in those locations, a rapid improvement in the total environment. Obviously, the improvement in the environment worldwide has not been continuous as only two of those flourishing societies are left.
Nevertheless, the number of people sharing the improved environment is increasing. West Germany and Japan have certainly been a good example of this during the past 25 years. And more recently Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and others have achieved rapid rises in their standards of living.
Furthermore, we know what the preconditions are and can use this knowledge to evaluate instances of environmental deterioration to determine corrective action.
I would like to examine some specific examples of alleged environmental deterioration in the light of today’s concern for the population explosion and the pollution of our ecological community.
First, let me say that there is no water shortage and very likely never will be except where distribution systems are inadequate. Water is used, not consumed. Therefore there is just as much water in the world today as there ever was. The New York Times Encyclopedic Almanac 1970 states that there are about 327 million cubic miles of water on the earth. 97 per cent of this total is salt water while 2 per cent is fresh water frozen in ice caps and glaciers. The remaining 1 per cent or 3.3 million cubic miles is fresh surface and ground water which amounts to about one billion gallons of fresh water per person in the world today. This is many million times more water than we are using each day. And yet there are people who insist that inevitably we will run out of water.
I will agree that in spite of all the water available, much of it is beginning to look used. It is obvious that there is a lot of polluted water. However, except for man-caused silting of the waterways of the world and for some recent isolated changes in the availability of aquatic food, water pollution constitutes only a minor economic and health problem. The Milwaukee River, for example, has been polluted for over 100 years but only recently has there been any significant expression of concern.
Secondly, let me dispel some pollution lore. It is quite evident that chemical and biological pollutants, in sufficient concentration, can cause destruction of at least a part of the natural state of a river or lake. Thermal pollution may cause a local change but is not likely to cause destruction. It is also evident that regardless of the concentration of pollutants, every moving body of water has the capability of eliminating the effect at some point downstream. Furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that any body of moving water, including Lake Erie, can be polluted to a point where it cannot eventually restore itself if the introduction of pollutants is sufficiently reduced. As with an area of polluted air, an area of polluted water becomes diluted as it moves on.
A pertinent question that might be asked: How did pollution get this bad? Since rivers and lakes have been considered public property, the concept of protecting private property from the actions of others (a precondition for a free society) has not been applicable. Therefore, the waterways simply have become unchallenged dumping grounds. For the same reason, litter has become commonplace on roadways, parks, and other public areas.
All that is needed is for all of the polluters—municipal, industrial, and agricultural—to reduce their polluting to a level where the waters can clean themselves to whatever level is desired.
The ultimate cost of pollution abatement must be borne by the polluters and passed on to their customers, whether industrial, municipal, or agricultural.
Although some new developments would be helpful in reducing costs, such as continuous flow sewage treatment, the technology exists today to abate nearly all of the water pollution. It is simply a matter of enforcement to achieve clean waters and this is what has been lacking. For example, the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, which bans the dumping of refuse into navigable waters, is just now being effectively enforced in various parts of the country.
Pollution control is primarily a state and local problem. Where effective local enforcement has occurred, dramatic results have been achieved in many parts of the world. For example, fish that have not been seen for generations have returned to the Thames in the London area. Game fish are again being caught in San Francisco Bay. Furthermore, these improvements required no sacrifice in the standard of living.
Beyond the setting of standards for Federal, interstate, and other navigable waterways, with some personnel for monitoring, there seems to be no more justification for a Federal bureaucracy concerned with water pollution abatement than for a Federal bureaucracy concerned with garbage collection.
Unfortunately, the almost frantic effort to federalize a local matter has restrained the development of effective local pollution abatement programs.
However, it is obvious from steps already taken and others scheduled that our environment is improving. The next few years will witness a reversal of centuries of water pollution.
Air pollution is probably more serious than water pollution because we don’t clean the air before we use it and the pollution is more difficult to evade. But the magnitude of the hazard is not known. That is, we really don’t know very much about the long term effect of different combinations and concentrations of impurities in the air. However, since we can see it and smell it, air pollution has become a social problem and therefore a political matter.
One of the incongruities of our laws pertaining to property is that the air rights do not include the air itself. However, this inconsistency is beginning to change; as a result, as in the case of water, the environmental problem of air pollution is rapidly yielding to local corrective action. I again emphasize "local action."
The technology for air pollution abatement does exist and is being applied. Furthermore, the technology is improving rapidly as the innovators go to work. There was little incentive or opportunity for innovation in the past under conditions of limited enforcement.
As in the case of water pollution abatement, wherever effective local enforcement of air pollution laws has occurred, dramatic results have been achieved.
Pittsburgh, with a local program, experienced significant improvement years ago. London has had pollution control laws for 400 years but erratic enforcement until recently. The Clean Air Act of 1956 required the replacement of coal fires with gas, electricity, or oil, and established smokeless zones. Lord Kennet, Joint Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, speaking to the National Executive Conference on Water Pollution Abatement in Washington on October 24, 1969, stated that "there hasn’t been a serious fog in London for seven years."
Los Angeles Smog
The Associated Press reported on March 21 that the head of the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District is retiring because, he says, "there’s nothing much left for me to do here." Air pollution in the Los Angeles basin is at its lowest point since 1954 and still declining without an erosion of the standard of living. Open air burning has been banned. Industry has complied with local air pollution abatement laws. The California Air Resources Board stated in its 1969 Annual Report issued in January of this year that because of California vehicle emission laws applicable to the 1970 model automobiles, hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions per car have been reduced over 70 per cent from the 1965 cars. Recently announced California emission standards, which are to be effective with the 1975 model cars, will result in a 95 per cent reduction in hydrocarbon emissions, 85 per cent in carbon monoxide emissions, and 83 per cent in oxides of nitrogen in contrast to earlier model cars. In spite of this improvement, some people continue to predict that Los Angeles smog will cause mass deaths by 1975.
With effective local enforcement of air pollution laws, our environment will continue to improve.
The alleged population explosion, if true, would certainly be an important factor in our total environment. However, I think it is nonsense to project recent population growth rates without considering what caused the rise or what could change it.
The population problem is essentially a matter of people, space, and food. Shelter and clothing are also important but, while their availability may be marginal, they are not critical in the areas where the population pressures are the greatest. As for people, the world population has been rising rapidly during the past century primarily due to a rapid reduction in death rates, not to a rise in birth rates.
The Western world — with its series of economic, scientific, and technological advances — witnessed a slow, gradual transition over many generations, from high death rates and high birth rates to low death rates and low birth rates concurrent with an improvement in the standard of living. During this time, the rate of population growth did not change significantly.
But in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, mortality rates have dropped substantially in the last few generations without a corresponding change in economic conditions or birth rates.
This obviously led to a rapid rise in the rate of population growth. However we may view the means or the result, one of the key factors contributing to the sharp drop in death rates in tropical countries has been the effective and continuing use of DDT in controlling disease-carrying insects.
On the brighter side of the population problem, growth rates have been dropping in the technically and economically advanced nations of Europe and North America. In the United States, for example, the population growth rate is down to less than 1 per cent a year and still declining. The Census Bureau reported that the population increased 154,000 during March to an estimated 204,663,000. The population of the United States is stabilizing without government coercion.
Furthermore, birth rates and therefore population growth rates have been falling rapidly for several years in such developing nations as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Trinidad-Tobago, and Singapore. These are not isolated cases but rather dramatic examples of the effect of market economies, the infusion of capital, and a resulting rise in the standard of living. Also, birth rates are beginning to fall in Ceylon, Malaysia, Jamaica, and Costa Rica for the same reason.
Japan has halted its program to reduce birth rates as there is concern about the long run labor requirements for their expanding industries. West Germany, Australia, and others are promoting increases in population.
The environment in the free world is improving.
As to the availability of space for an expanding population, there is not much to say beyond the fact that there is plenty of it. However, in order to take advantage of the open land, we may have to break or at least bend the tradition of the central city. After all, the central city in this country was rendered obsolete over a generation ago by the automobile. All of its traditional functions have been diffused into outlying areas except the function of serving as a political base.
More than seven thousand years of overgrazing and poor farming methods throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia have caused eroded slopes, silted rivers, and paralyzed food production. Changes in ancient civilizations and empires in this area paralleled disastrous grain farming methods.
There have been some interesting highlights during this time. The Sumerians, whom I mentioned earlier, over 4,000 years ago developed irrigation technology within an environment of private property and a market economy. The early Egyptians harnessed the ox, thereby increasing productivity to a point where people were available for building programs. The Romans implemented and expanded the soil and water conservation technology of the Carthaginians. The Saracens improved it still further and developed what became known as scientific farming. In more recent times the English have been steadily increasing wheat productivity for many centuries. With a few other exceptions already mentioned, the rest of the world went hungry most of this time.
Even today, population growth threatens to exceed food production in some parts of the world where Malthus is again in the vogue. In other parts, however, food production is increasing far more rapidly than population.
It is interesting to note the variations in food production and productivity in different parts of the world. Since land is a fixed resource, the only valid measure of productivity is per unit of land.
The previous chart shows the productivity in bushels per acre for the United Kingdom from the thirteenth century through 1968. Other nations are shown on the U.K. line with their yields as of 1963. In addition, the world population line is shown without the fourteenth century plague dip.
You will note that for the United Kingdom there was slow growth until the yield takeoff in the 1940′s.
Also note the position of other countries on the U.K. line. The United States and Canada are relatively low because the averages include the nonirrigated lands in the plains area where yields are erratic. Actually, in many Midwestern areas, wheat yields exceed those of the U.K. Of interest is that Yugoslavia is one of the most market-oriented of the Eastern Bloc nations.
There have been a few changes in productivity since 1963. France moved up to 53 bushels in 1968. The United States with 13 bushels per acre in the 1930′s and 20 bushels in the 1950′s is now at about 30 bushels. Russia is still at about 17 bushels per acre.
Malthus wrote his first book in 1798 long before the takeoff.
Agricultural economists contend that certain conditions are necessary for a "yield takeoff" of a nation’s primary food crop:
1. A high degree of market orientation in agriculture.
2. A relatively high level of literacy.
3. Per capita income far enough above subsistence levels to provide capital for investment in yield-raising capital inputs.
4. A high level of development of the nonagricultural sector. While these four conditions have existed wherever a yield takeoff has occurred, I suspect that the last three items are not so important since yield takeoffs are beginning to occur in developing nations where only the first condition is dominant.
The reasons for the yield takeoff in any food crop are typically the effective use of mechanization, chemicals, and appropriate strains of the plant. The chemical revolution has produced new types of nutrients, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and bioregulants. These are all part of the new technology of our improving environment, as are breakthroughs in the genetic design of new strains and varieties of crops.
New strains of wheat have yielded over 100 bushels per acre. Hybridization of wheat is just now getting started, nearly forty years after corn. A synthetic species called triticales, combining wheat and rye, out produces both in yield per acre and in protein content.
Wheat production in this country has been rising faster than consumption for many years. As a result of persistent wheat surpluses, the national wheat acreage allotment has been significantly reduced in recent years. As reported in The Wall Street Journal on December 22, 1969, the government’s 1970 wheat program calls for a 12 per cent cut in acreage from the 1969 level. It is expected that in 1970 approximately 44 million acres will produce 1.3 billion bushels of wheat. This compares with 74 million acres producing less than 1 billion bushels fifty years ago.
While we are cutting acreage, Russia is still increasing acreage; although Russia’s total output in 1969 dropped 5 per cent from the 1968 level as reported in the January 12, 1970 issue of Foreign Agriculture.
The chart below shows the productivity line for corn in the United States, where about half of the world’s supply is produced. The yield takeoff started in the late 1930′s and became fully effective in the early 1940′s. It was primarily due to hybridization, fertilizers, weed control, and higher plant densities.
Although the average yield has reached nearly 80 bushels per acre, many farms have exceeded 100 bushels. Over 300 bushels have been achieved experimentally, with some new technologies yet to be tried.
In 1880, it took an average of 48 hours of work to produce one acre of corn. Today, with modern equipment, it takes only two hours. In that same period the yields per acre increased from 25 bushels to 80. The productivity of the farmer increased 24 times but the productivity of the land increased only 3 times. It is the land that is now becoming more productive.
As a matter of interest, it has been estimated from contemporary records that the American Indians were achieving corn yields of between 15 and 20 bushels per acre when the white men arrived.
Rice is the chief food for half the world’s population. This chart shows the productivity line for Japan where the yield takeoff occurred considerably earlier than in other rice producing countries. Note the position of the other nations with market economies that are not too far behind.
With a limitation on available land, the Japanese, following the formation of their first national government a century ago, promoted an early takeoff after a thousand years of slow growth in productivity. The yield per acre increased from about 2,200 pounds per acre to more than double that level today. As a result, Japan is now exporting rice and has embarked on a program of reducing rice acreage 10 per cent per year for three years.
The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, sponsored by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, has developed some exciting new strains of rice. With IR-8, one of the new strains, the Philippines in 1969 not only became self-sufficient but achieved a surplus. Unfortunately, they could not sell all of the surplus because of the glut in the world rice markets. Note on the chart where the Philippines were in 1963. The individual Philippine farmers, who are using IR-8 and appropriate chemicals, have achieved in just a few years a yield increase that required over 1,000 years to accomplish in Japan.
Rapid conversion to the new strains is taking place throughout Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. The new strains of rice permit heavier fertilizing, and not only have higher yields but at least one and possibly two extra crops each year. They take four months or less to mature as against up to seven months for the old strains. Where weather conditions permit multiple cropping, the increase in production per year can be several times that of old types.
A yield takeoff now requires less time to implement where takeoff conditions are met. This is largely due to better communications, which is another part of our improving environment.
While mechanization has helped increase wheat and corn yields, it is not that important to increasing rice yields in Asia.
As with wheat and corn, the production of rice in the free world is increasing much faster than population is. The environment in the free world is improving.
India has high hopes, but also has rigid price controls on rice at levels below the free market price. This, of course, has discouraged the production of rice. Although experimental farms are becoming more productive, average yields per acre are still at the levels of 1900 with no indication of a national yield takeoff.
Other Food Crops
Recent yield takeoffs in the free world are not confined to the primary grain crops. For example, in the United States the yield per acre of grain sorghum, as well as the yield of soybeans, has more than doubled since the 1930′s, while the yield of potatoes has more than tripled in many areas.
In summarizing the food situation, the unmistakable facts are these:
In the nations with market-oriented agriculture, food production is increasing more rapidly than population is, while in the nations with socialized agriculture the opposite is true.
The capitalist nations are experiencing "problems" of increasing food surpluses. The developing nations with market economies that are effectively applying new technologies are rapidly achieving self-sufficiency. On the other hand, the developing nations with planned economies and limited effectiveness of new technology are facing serious food shortages as are the major socialist nations: Russia, China, and India.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stated in its annual report released in January, "The food problem facing the world in the near future is more likely to be surpluses rather than starvation."
As a word of caution, not all developing agricultural nations are ready for a yield takeoff of their primary food crop. However, it will occur sooner if the preconditions are met.
Nevertheless, a higher per cent of the free world’s population is living above the subsistence level than ever before in history.
Another point, the world’s total potentially arable land, using today’s technology, is over three times the area actually harvested. Furthermore, throughout the world, land is being reforested faster than timber is being cut; strip-mined land is being reclaimed faster than it is being mined; and many areas of land ruined centuries ago are once again blooming.
Our environment is improving. In looking ahead, there are many exciting things being developed for the next wave of the agricultural revolution. The following are just a few:
1. Lower costs for desalting sea water as well as surface and subsurface brackish water.
2. Implementation of subirrigation techniques in which all nutrients and other chemicals are applied at the root level using only one-third as much water as with surface irrigation. This will eliminate chemical runoff and reduce soil runoff. This technique, together with desalinization procedures, may very well be the answer to the salt buildup in the Imperial Valley of California.
3. Increased use of plastic shelters for cold-weather farming. Many garden crops such as tomatoes are now grown in this manner.
4. Growing acceptance of the elimination of plowing to maximize yields and minimize topsoil runoff.
5. Lower unit costs and prices following the inevitable shift to corporate farming. The elimination of price supports and acreage restrictions will accelerate this shift.
6. I should also acknowledge and allow for the countless innovations, large and small, that have not yet emerged.
The Total Environment Is Improving in the Free World
I mentioned in the beginning that the goal of men throughout history, as clearly indicated by many voluntary emigrations and migrations, has been freedom and the opportunity to improve their well-being as they see it. Freedom for one implies freedom for all—which means security of life and property. These conditions, which promote the most effective utilization of human energy, represent a favorable total environment.
The evidence is overwhelming that the environment is improving. The free nations of the world, with rising standards of living for an increasing number of their citizens, illustrate the most favorable total environment the world has ever known.
Malthus, who was more of a reporter than a prophet, could no more visualize the real effect of new technology developed and creatively applied by free people than Karl Marx could. Both have been proved wrong.
Some people will say about food that "the problem is not a shortage but a matter of distribution." If they would only inquire into the matter, they will find that there really are shortages. They will find free nations in all stages of development that have food surpluses, stabilizing populations, rising standards of living, and the will to achieve control over their physical environment. They will also find nations with planned economies facing critical food shortages and a wide range of population growth rates, level or declining standards of living, and little concern for their physical environment. Those who inquire will become aware of the universal failure of planned agriculture.
Others say that the gap between the haves and have-nots is increasing and that somehow the capitalist nations are responsible and should feel guilty. This is really the wrong comparison. It is not a question of have or have not but rather how well they are using what they have. Without question, there is a gap that is widening. But it is between nations that have conditions conducive to rising standards of living and nations that have conditions limiting the rise in the standards of living. For example, compare the widening gap between East and West Germany, remembering that both started from the same pile of rubble 25 years ago. Compare the widening gap between Japan and India. Compare the fortunes of Cuba and Mexico over the past generation, with the gap now widening in favor of Mexico. These widening gaps are to the credit, not the blame, of the free nations.
If I were to consider an appropriate objective for this age of increasing awareness of our environment, I would say let us first identify and understand those conditions which will provide the best total environment for the greatest number.
For the nations with free societies, the total environment is better and is continually improving. Individual economic freedom seems to be the key. Never before in history has there been such a great opportunity to extend these free world concepts to all the people of the world. Never before have the comparisons between the free and controlled societies been so obvious or the communications to make them known so effective.
For those who want to take a personal part in environmental improvement, I would suggest that after they acquire an understanding of the preconditions of an improving environment they actively promote the implementation of these conditions wherever they are lacking. On a local basis, they should seek enactment and effective enforcement of appropriate environmental improvement laws based on the concepts covered earlier under water and air resources.
For purposes of pollution abatement, food production, and an improvement in other environmental factors, let us use the new technologies effectively—not abandon them. There is much to be done.
Personally, I am very confident that by the year 2000, for the free world, there will be clearer thinking on the matter of improving the total environment. There will be a realization that effective control and improvement in our environment requires no decline in our standard of living. On the contrary, it should continue to improve if all conditions are met. As a result of effective local programs, there will be cleaner air and water. Food production capability will continue to exceed population growth. The trend that has already started toward a stabilization of the world population will be continuing—voluntarily.
Obviously, I cannot foresee future events; but I am certain that, given the condition of freedom, many more contributions to an improving total environment will be made by creative and productive individuals of this and future generations.
FOR ADDITIONAL READING OR REFERENCE:
AIR/WATER Pollution Report. Published weekly by Business Publishers, Inc. P.O. Box 1067, Blair Station, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910.
Clean Air and Water News. Published weekly by Commerce Clearing House, Inc., 4025 West Peterson Avenue, Chicago 60646.
The Yearbook of Agriculture, 1969. United States Government Printing Office.
Foreign Agriculture. Published monthly by Foreign Agricultural Service, United States Department of Agriculture.
The Conference Board Record. Published monthly by National Industrial Conference Board, Inc., 845 Third Avenue, New York, N. Y. 10022. Particularly the issues of September and October 1967.
World Irrigation. Published six times a year by H. L. Peace Publications, P.O. Box 52288, New Orleans, Louisiana 70130.
Irrigation Age. Published ten times a year by Irrigation Age, Inc., 1621 Wall Street, Dallas, Texas 75215.
Water Newsletter. Published semimonthly by Water Information Center, Inc., 44 Sintsink Drive East, Port Washington, Long Island, New York 11050.
All Clear. Published bimonthly by All Clear, Inc., 299 Forest Avenue, Paramus, New Jersey 07652.
Reclamation Era. Published quarterly, Bureau of Reclamation, United States Department of Interior.
Agricultural Research. Published monthly by United States Department of Agriculture.
Science Review. Published quarterly by United States Department of Agriculture.