A Bet That Things Are Getting Better

JULIAN L. SIMON

March 24, 1992|By JULIAN L. SIMON

Sen. Albert Gore Jr., D-Tenn., has recently written a book called ''Earth in the Balance.'' But it is truth, not our very durable planet, that is in the balance. The book is as ignorant a collection of cliches as anything ever published on the subject -- and there is lots of tough competition for that dubious honor.

Just about every assertion Mr. Gore makes points in the wrong direction, suggesting that conditions are getting worse when in fact they are getting better. Lest the reader accuse me of seizing on the occasional ''soft target,'' let's start with the very first topic in the book, soil erosion, and go from there.

After trotting out the obligatory scare words about how ''eight acres worth of prime topsoil floats past Memphis every hour,'' Senator Gore says that Iowa ''used to have an average of 16 inches of the best topsoil in the world. Now it is down to 8 inches.'' That assertion is footnoted: ''Conversations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.'' That is too vague a reference to check -- indeed, printed sources are generally scarce in the book -- but we do know the trend of erosion for the country as a whole.

If Senator Gore had done his homework, he would have examined the data in the publications of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. He would have talked Bruce Gardner, assistant secretary of agriculture for economics, and to Mr. Gardner's teacher at the University of Chicago, Theodore Schultz, who has been watching soil erosion since he was a farm boy in South Dakota in the 1920s and who received a Nobel Prize for his work in agricultural economics and human capital. The senator would have read articles by Mr. Schultz and by the respected agricultural economists Earl Swanson at the University of Illinois and Earl Heady at the University of Iowa.

Had he consulted these sources, Mr. Gore would have learned that the average farm in the United States is becoming less rather than more eroded. Decade after recent decade, fewer rather than more acres have been suffering from severe erosion. That becomes clear from comparison of Soil Conservation Service surveys done at intervals since the 1930s.

Senator Gore's treatment of soil erosion sets the pattern for the rest of the book. He alleges that there is a ''global ecological crisis,'' that conditions have been worsening. But in fact, all indicators of human welfare have been improving rather than deteriorating.

Senator Gore writes of DDT, ''which became for me a symbol of how carelessly our civilization could do harm to the world.'' He provides no data and cites no authorities, though he later adds that DDT ''can be environmentally dangerous in tiny amounts.''

A touch of research would have turned up writings such as

''Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Man,'' by Gordon Harrison, former director of the Ford Foundation's environmental program. Mr. Gore would have learned that with the aid of DDT, ''India [brought] the number of malaria cases down from the estimated 75 million in 1951 to about 50,000 in 1961, and Sri Lanka reduced malaria from about 3 million cases after World War II to just 29 in 1964.'' However, as the use of DDT went down, ''endemic malaria returned to India like the turnaround of a tide.'' By 1977 ''the number of cases reached at least 30 million and perhaps 50 million.'' Does that suggest that DDT harms civilization?

DDT can be used quite safely. Rachel Carson's frightening scenarios, which Mr. Gore remembers troubling his mother, turned out to be without foundation. In 1971, amid the fight that led to the banning of DDT in 1972, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, the distinguished biologist Philip Handler, said, ''DDT is the greatest chemical that has ever been discovered.'' Commission after commission, top expert after top Nobel Prize-winning expert, has given DDT a clean bill of health. But their findings have no place in Senator Gore's book.

Then Senator Gore turns to Agent Orange (dioxin), which he describes as ''the suspected cause of chromosomal damage and birth defects.'' Again, he provides no documentation -- this time with reason, for although Mr. Gore and his colleagues ''suspected'' Agent Orange, it was pronounced innocent by a federal judge when veterans brought suit. There simply is no solid scientific evidence of any ill effects of dioxin.

Last August a New York Times front-page headline read, ''U.S. Backing Away from Saying Dioxin Is a Deadly Peril.'' ''Exposure to the chemical,'' the story said, ''once thought to be much more hazardous than chain smoking, is now considered by some experts to be no more risky than spending a week sunbathing.'' Evacuation of Times Beach, Missouri, was unnecessary. But Senator Gore has not gotten the word.

Love Canal is next. Senator Gore seems unaware that the solid scientific consensus is that living near Love Canal did no observable damage to humans.

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