The Nation's Pulse

A Happy Earth Day

Cheer up. Things aren't all bad.

By 4.22.10

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Once again, your faithful TAS contributor will, this Earth Day, highlight items that are often overlooked in the general rush to pessimism on matters environmental.

We cannot let this day pass without commenting on the passing of a remarkable human being who directed his ingenuity, energy and commitment to the cause of feeding the world's growing population and thereby avoiding the human catastrophe predicted by so many experts of less than hopeful bent.

Norman Borlaug, the famous plant scientist, died on September 12, 2009, at 95. The Economist called him the "feeder of the world."

Having quit a fine job at DuPont, Borlaug began working in Mexico in 1944 to increase grain yields and bring food to the poor. By 1956 that country's wheat production had doubled to the point of making it self-sufficient.

He won the Nobel peace prize in 1970 for basically precipitating the "Green Revolution," which resulted in global grain production outpacing population growth, saving millions of lives. He was a researcher and a man of action. He was always in the fields checking on his experimental crops in places such as India and Africa.

"The famines and huge mortality that had been predicted for the second half of the 20th century never came to pass," noted the Economist in its laudatory obituary on Borlaug.

Moreover, as Gregg Easterbrook has observed, his techniques of high-yield agriculture avoided deforestation on a planetary scale since fewer acres are needed to feed more people. And his modern agricultural techniques have lead to lower population growth since they allow for a higher premium on education rather than "muscle power" as the key to family success.

He was always looking over his shoulder at what he called the "Population Monster," which some find puzzling, a sign of pessimism belied by his own experience. On the other hand, even though human populations are crashing in Europe, Russia and Japan, there will be strong growth in many other parts of the world for many years before peaking at 10 billion. These people must also be fed. The genetic research of the kind pursued by Norman Borlaug will be of the utmost importance for years to come.

Another bit of good news comes from Switzerland where voters defeated a proposal to appoint lawyers for animals with 80 percent voting "No" on the referendum. For this, and so much else, we give thanks this Earth Day.

Evidently, this idea was based on a system already in place in the canton of Zurich. In fact, one defendant-fisherman there was hauled into court there for landing a 22-pound pike that had put up a fight for 10 minutes, as reported last month by Deborah Ball of the Wall Street Journal. Her fishy story was headlined, "Scales of Justice."

I can't make this stuff up. Life is stranger than fiction,

The pike was represented in the case by Antonine Goetschel, the official animal lawyer for the canton. He got into the case after animal welfare (rights?) groups filed a complaint for animal cruelty against an amateur angler.

"It is this Hemingway thinking," said lawyer Goetschel. "Why should this be legal when other animals have to be slaughtered in a humane way?" "If you treat fish like objects in a computer game, their dignity is hurt." Fortunately, he lost the case.

Back on earth there have been a number of pleasant developments which, in fairness, have drawn some decent coverage in the media which normally gravitate toward mostly depressing story lines on environmental matters.

A front-page story in the Washington Post last week proclaimed that "Chesapeake blue crabs are back in the black." The crabs, in decline for a decade, "are in the middle of an extraordinary comeback," wrote David A. Fahrenfold. "The estuary's crab population has more than doubled in two years." Maryland and Virginia officials had set strict limits on the crab harvest in 2008, targeting females for particular protection

While income to watermen and seafood dealers took a hit, the good news is that the crab will continue to exist, period. "Something like this is really rare to see in marine fisheries…to go from the situation where the crab had been overfished and nearing possible collapse, to a point where it is now being sustainably fished," said Rom Lipcius, a marine scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

In Oregon Steelhead, the ocean-dwelling member of the rainbow trout family, along with Coho and Chinook salmon, "have made a spectacular return to local streams in the past year, leaving sportsmen exultant and putting food on the tables of struggling Oregonians," reported Joel Millman in the Wall Street Journal this past January.

State fisheries officials indicated that as many as 3,000 Steelheads, up from 1,400 last year, would likely make the run this year.

"More than 680,000 Coho salmon returned to Oregon last year, double the number in 2007," wrote Millman. "There were reports of creeks so choked with salmon, 'you could literally walk across the backs of Coho,' said Grant McOmie, outdoors correspondent for a television news team in Portland."

Over half a million spring Chinook salmon were forecasted, about two and a half times the 2009 run and nearly four times 2007. It is "the biggest spring Chinook run since 1938, when Oregon began keeping record of returning Pacific fish."

This was unexpected. Scientists believe a brief period of cooling in the Northern Pacific ocean in 2008 generated fatter plankton upon which young fish or "smolts" thrive. Temperatures are warming again. However, higher water flows mandated by a federal judge probably helped smolts in getting back to the ocean and past predators.

Eighty percent of the fish are likely to be hatchery-born, not spawned in the wild. Whatever the combination of factors yielding this surge of big fish, the Oregon Food Bank was able to distribute 79,000 pounds of frozen Coho to needy families amidst an unemployment rate of 12 percent.

Speaking of water flows, the U.S. Geological Survey reports that the United States is using less water than during the peak years of 1975 and 1980, despite a 30 percent increase in population over 25 years. Overall water use has remained fairly stable. As of 2005 Americans used 410 billion gallons per day, slightly less than in 2000. Increased use of efficient irrigation and alternative technologies in power plants seem to be the reason.

Finally, the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the brown pelican, a species once decimated by pesticides, has recovered and is being removed from the list of threatened and endangered species.

First listed in 1970, there are now 650,000 pelicans in Florida, the Gulf and Pacific Coasts, as well as the Caribbean and Latin America.

I could go on.

Happy Earth Day 2010.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.