Concern for environmental protection is a settled value among Americans, with public opinion polls showing consistent support for environmental protection regardless of economic conditions, and across partisan lines and political ideologies. Two-thirds of Americans, according to a Wirthlin poll, consider themselves to be either active environmentalists or sympathetic to environmental concerns. Environmental consciousness is also increasing among prosperous peoples elsewhere in the world. This development is a cause for optimism, because it suggests that as the world becomes more prosperous, nations will not only have the wealth to afford high environmental standards, but will also find substantial political support for environmental protection among their citizens.

The evidence on the effects of prosperity and progress on the environment, as this report will show, amply justifies this optimism. Yet there is a lot of pessimism and confusion about the state of the environment among Americans.

It is not surprising that polls find Americans are not well informed about the details of specific environmental issues—this is true of many areas of public policy and politics—but it is somewhat surprising that people think overall environmental quality has gotten worse when in fact it has improved, and continues to improve, substantially. The Wirthlin Group’s annual poll on environmental issues has consistently found large majorities—often over 75 percent—who think that environmental problems will get worse in their lifetime. Moreover, according to a Roper-

Starch poll, 57 percent of Americans agree with the statement that “The next ten years will be the last decade when humans will have a chance to save the earth from environmental catastrophe.”

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of environmental demise have been greatly exaggerated. Over the last generation in the United States there have been dramatic declines in overall pollution levels, and major improvements in the general condition of forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife habitat. There is good reason to believe that, during the next century, the rest of the world will experience these kinds of improvements.

The common perception is to give credit to laws and regulations enacted in the aftermath of the first Earth Day in 1970, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Although the effects of these laws and regulations are undeniably important, taking a longer-term perspective sheds new light on environmental progress and its fundamental causes.

Before delving into a longer-term perspective, however, it is helpful to delineate various prominent aspects of “the environment” and “environmentalism.”

Just as there is no singular or unitary meaning of “liberalism” or “conservatism,” “environmentalism” has several distinct meanings, and there are many shadings among environmentalists and environmental organizations.