Both environmentalists and economists claim to have humanity's welfare as their goal. Yet they are often at logger-heads. For economists, the world seems to be getting better. For environmentalists, it is getting worse. Environmentalists have developed a litany of environmental fears: natural resources are running out; the population is ever growing; species are becoming extinct; forests are disappearing; the planet's air and water are becoming ever more polluted. Human activity is defiling the earth, and humanity may end up killing itself in the process.
The trouble is, the evidence does not back up this litany. Energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, and more food is now produced per capita of the world's population than at any time in history. Although species are indeed becoming extinct, only about 0.79o of them are expected to disappear in the next 50 years, not 25-50% as has so often been predicted, And finally, most forms of environmental pollution either appear to have been exaggerated or are transient-associated with the early phases of industrialization and therefore best cured not by restricting economic growth but by accelerating it.
Yet opinion polls suggest that many people nurture the belief that environmental standards are declining. Why this disjunction between perception and reality? One reason is the lopsided built into scientific research. Scientific funding goes mainly to the areas with the most problems. That may be wise policy, but it also creates an impression that many more potential problems exist than is the case. Another source of confusion is the attitude of the media. People are clearly more curious about bad news than good, News-papers and broadcasters are there to provide what the public wants. That, however, can lead to significant distortions of perception.
In order for governments and corporations to make wise decisions for the future, we must replace the litany with the facts. Of course, rational environmental management and environmental investment are good ideas, but the costs and benefits of such investments should be compared with those of similar investments in other important areas of human endeavor.