WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Ordinarily, I choose to ignore Julian Simon, the University of Maryland economics professor and environmental basher who argues that all is well with the world and that environmental threats are a lot of hot (as opposed to polluted) air.
To me, it's a highly simplistic and inaccurate view that rarely merits any kind of response, if for no other reason than that devoting too much attention to rebuttals risks lending more credibility to Mr. Simon than he deserves. But his latest tirade, ''A Bet That Things Are Getting Better'' (Opinion * Commentary, Mar. 24), caught my eye.
It was a denunciation of Sen. Al Gore's recently published environmental tract, ''Earth in the Balance.'' The professor wrote that he would ''bet a week's or a month's pay with Senator Gore or anybody else'' that the assertions in his column debunking the senator's environmental call to arms were correct.
Ah, easy money. Professor Simon, I accept the challenge.
Let's begin with your denial of the senator's contention that mankind is facing a ''global ecological crisis.'' One might conceivably argue over the degree of urgency posed by the environmental threats that Senator Gore outlines, but you don't stop there.
You make the flat assertion: ''In fact, all trends pertaining to human welfare have been improving rather than deteriorating.''
In rebuttal, I submit the following.
Researchers for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization have documented that per-capita cropland has been falling steadily since mid-century. Their data also show that virgin tropical rain forests were reduced by an average of 40 million acres a year during the past decade. That was 83 percent greater than the estimated rate of loss between 1976 and 1980, and no perceptible let-up appears in sight for these shrinking cornucopias of biodiversity.
The U.S. Commerce Department's data base reveals that shellfish-bed acreage closed to fishing because of pollution has risen from 443,000 in 1966 to one million in 1990 off the northeastern U.S. coast, and from 523,000 to 2.4 million acres during the same period in the Gulf of Mexico.
That's not all. According to U.N. and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, our country is emitting nitrogen-oxide pollutants in greater volumes than 20 years ago, primarily because more automobiles are on the road.
Scripps Institute of Oceanography has statistics which demonstrate that atmospheric concentrations of the major greenhouse and ozone-depleting gases have been increasing rapidly in the last decade.
The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development discovered that nitrate pollution increased substantially from 1970 to the late 1980s in 17 out of 18 major rivers monitored in the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe.
Mr. Simon maintains that the pesticide DDT can be used ''quite safely'' and merits ''a clean bill of health.'' Apparently, the vast majority of the scientific community hasn't gotten the message, because there has been no great drumbeat to rescind the 1972 '' DDT ban in this country. Perhaps that is because DDT's toxicity is highly persistent in the environment; it has been convincingly linked to thinning eggshells of waterfowl, and has produced cancerous growths in laboratory mice.
Though no conclusive connection has been established between DDT and cancer or any other disease in human beings, a number of studies are not terribly reassuring. One of the most recent involves a 1990 disclosure by the Rohm and Haas Company that it had found a troubling pattern among employees who worked at its Philadelphia plant from 1948 to 1973 when DDT was manufactured there. A possible correlation between pancreatic cancer and exposure to DDT was suggested, though the connection is by no means conclusive and the investigation continues. But one would be hard-pressed under such circumstances to assign DDT a ''clean bill of health.''
Mr. Simon maintains that contrary to Senator Gore's claim, there is ''no observable damage to human beings from living near Love Canal,'' the infamous site of chemical waste contamination in upstate New York. I refer him to a study completed in 1985 by scientists from the Bruce Lyon Memorial Research Lab in Oakland, California, the State University of New York in Buffalo, and Princeton's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies.
Their findings: In a survey of 493 children living near Love Canal, and 428 children in a ''clean'' area control group, the former had statistically significant higher rates of birth defect, lower birth weights and shorter statures.
I could go on, but I think I've made my point.
You can pay with cash, check or money order, Professor Simon. No credit cards, please!
Edward Flattau writes a column on environmental issues.