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Will the BP spill reinvigorate the environmentalist movement?

Op-Ed Columnist - Oil Drilling, Disaster and Denial - NYTimes.com

Krugman lays out the root causes of the environmentalism of the 70s and 80s, which are things I did not know.


Environmentalism began as a response to pollution that everyone could see. The spill in the gulf recalls the 1969 blowout that coated the beaches of Santa Barbara in oil. But 1969 was also the year the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, caught fire. Meanwhile, Lake Erie was widely declared “dead,” its waters contaminated by algal blooms. And major U.S. cities — especially, but by no means only, Los Angeles — were often cloaked in thick, acrid smog.

It wasn’t that hard, under the circumstances, to mobilize political support for action. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the Clean Water Act was enacted, and America began making headway against its most visible environmental problems. Air quality improved: smog alerts in Los Angeles, which used to have more than 100 a year, have become rare. Rivers stopped burning, and some became swimmable again. And Lake Erie has come back to life, in part thanks to a ban on laundry detergents containing phosphates.

Yet there was a downside to this success story.

For one thing, as visible pollution has diminished, so has public concern over environmental issues. According to a recent Gallup survey, “Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years.”

This decline in concern would be fine if visible pollution were all that mattered — but it isn’t, of course. In particular, greenhouse gases pose a greater threat than smog or burning rivers ever did. But it’s hard to get the public focused on a form of pollution that’s invisible, and whose effects unfold over decades rather than days.