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2004 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators:

Earth Day is Cause for Celebration: Environmental Trends Mostly Positive

By Steven Hayward

with Michael De Alessi, Holly L. Fretwell,
Brent Haglund, Joel Schwartz,
Ryan Stowers, and Sam Thernstrom

Full Text PDF
Chapter on Public Land Management
by Holly Lippke Fretwell

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SAN FRANCISCO – The ninth annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, released today by the Pacific Research Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, shows that the environment continues to be America’s single greatest policy success. Environmental quality has improved so much, in fact, that it is nearly impossible to paint a grim, gloom-and-doom picture anymore.

Environmental quality is improving steadily and in some cases dramatically in key areas:

  • Average vehicle emissions are dropping about 10 percent per year as the fleet turns over to inherently cleaner vehicles, including modern SUVs.
  • Ninety-four percent of the population is served by water systems that have reported no violations of any health-based standards.
  • There has been a 55-percent decline in toxic releases since 1988, even while total output of the industries covered by this measurement has increased 40 percent.
  • Despite most popular assumptions, U.S. air quality trends are found to be at least equal, if not slightly better, than in Europe.


This year’s Index includes a list of the media’s best environmental reporting. Featured outlets include Boston Globe, Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and Wall Street Journal.

There have also been notable improvements in government reporting, with the EPA’s first-ever composite on national trends and state-based initiatives to improve water-quality monitoring.

Private conservation efforts, such as Ducks Unlimited and the Peregrine Fund, and private water trusts have been highly successful.

And recent findings in climate-change science also give reason for hope. Because the climate models have been based on flawed economic assumptions, there is even greater uncertainty now in the range of CO2 emissions projections. This means the prognosis is probably not as grim as conventional wisdom would have us believe.

The Index shows that one of the few areas to show a decline in quality is that of public lands. While funding and land allotments have increased, quality has deteriorated by most significant measures. The root of the problem is an excess of political management, and the answer can be found in innovative solutions such as land trusts and resource leases.

This year’s Index also includes a special section comparing air quality in the U.S. and Europe.

"Doomsaying and know-nothingism get better headlines and work well for direct-mail fundraising," said lead author Steven Hayward, "but a serious look at the data helps us appreciate how far we’ve come, and helps set priorities for the next generation of environmental activism."

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