Despite our efforts, it’s hard to keep nature down

The Laotian rock rat isn’t a rat at all. It’s a squirrel that walks upright on its hind legs and lives in limestone crevices rather than in trees. Based on the rock rat’s fossil record, scientists concluded that it went extinct 11 million years ago, more or less. Thus it was big news, a few years back, when one of these long-lost rodents waddled through a food market in Thailand and ended up in a stew pot. Since then, scientists have sighted and, more importantly, videotaped a number of them in their remote natural habitat, providing further proof of the phenomenon known as the Lazarus Effect.

Environmental contrarian Steven Hayward cites the Laotian rock rat this year in the 2009 issue of his annual Index of Leading Economic Indicators, an authoritative work that directs people’s attention to notable achievements in the preservation and restoration of the natural world. A senior fellow at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, Mr. Hayward acknowledges environmental problems but provides a break from the de rigueur doom and gloom that commonly pervades environmental studies.

Who knew, for example, that a biological survey of the Greater Mekong Delta in Southeast Asia last year turned up more than 1,000 previously unknown and unclassified species? Who knew that the Lazarus Effect turned up much closer to home last year when seaside goldenrod, a salt marsh plant officially extinct, was discovered flourishing alongside highways in upstate New York? (In some instances, they were found “thrusting up through cracks in the concrete.”)

The world accommodates a vast number of plant and animal species, apparently somewhere between 1.5 million and 100 million. People quite reasonably direct their concern to the individual species that gets into trouble, either on its own or with human help. Mr. Hayward notes that the global “red list” of endangered species now numbers 16,698 – which suggests a survival risk either to 1.1 per cent of them or to 0.01 per cent of them. These calculations aside, Mr. Hayward celebrates the improbable return last year to the coast of Texas, after decades absent, of a nesting leatherback sea turtle.

Assessing global data, Mr. Hayward concludes that the world’s most severe environmental problems now arise “overwhelmingly” from the relative poverty of developing nations. For example, according to a World Bank analysis, no Western European or North American city ranks among the top 50 most polluted cities in the world. But another set of pollution rankings, compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO), makes for interesting comparisons.

Based on WHO standards for sulphur dioxide levels in ambient air, for example, Canada has precisely the same number of cities in the top 90 most-polluted cities of the world as the U.S: three. The U.S. cities are New York (which ranks 49th), Chicago (77th) and Los Angeles (90th). The Canadian cities are Toronto (70th), Vancouver (79th) and Montreal (87th).

In fact, of course, ambient air quality in all of these cities is dramatically better than in the top 10 most-polluted cities. Toronto air, for instance, has 26 times less sulphur dioxide than Guiyang, the Chinese city that ranks No. 1. Los Angeles has 47 times less. Western Europe has 20 cities in the top 90 – among them Athens (38th), Milan (44th), Brussels (62nd) and Dublin (64th). In the WHO analysis of particulate pollution, Western Europe again has 20 cities in the top 90 worst-polluted – versus two in the U.S. (Los Angeles and Chicago) and none in Canada.

More counterintuitive for some, perhaps, is Mr. Hayward’s finding that U.S. air quality improved at a much faster rate during the presidential terms of George W. Bush – whom environmentalists asserted was “rolling back the Clean Air Act” – than during the presidential term of Bill Clinton. Carbon monoxide levels fell 24 per cent in the Clinton years, 39 per cent in the Bush years. Nitrogen dioxide levels fell 9.6 per cent in the Clinton years, 20 per cent in the Bush years. Lead levels fell 33 per cent in the Clinton years, 56 per cent in the Bush years.

According to research published last year by scientists from the Nevada-based Desert Research Institute, however, environmental lead has been declining (along with chromium and thallium) for the past 100 years – the relatively recent elimination of leaded gasoline notwithstanding. Using Arctic ice core samples, the team calculated heavy-metal air pollution for the past 200 years. The peak came in 1915 with heavy-metal levels as much as five times higher than in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mr. Hayward notes an important environmental anniversary in 2009 – the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the worst oil spill ever. It dumped 10 million gallons of crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. The Marine Pollution Bulletin, an international journal for environmental scientists, reported last year that the sound has “almost completely” returned to its pre-spill state. Hydrocarbon compounds, it said, “have trended down to very low, near pristine, conditions.”

Fortunately, you just can’t keep nature down – most of the time.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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