It was something of a surprise, the report from the World Economic Forum, ranking the U.S. 45th of 146 countries in its “index of environmental sustainability.”
With all the strides this country has made over the past three decades in correcting the grossest of our environmental failings, one would think we'd have fared better.
It's no real stretch to understand why Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, and other northern-clime countries were at the top of the list, what with their windswept, icy locales, relatively low population/motor vehicle densities, and long-standing governmental policies directed at keeping them as pristine as possible.
Less fathomable are the above-the-U.S. rankings of several European and Latin American nations, which were years behind us in adopting unleaded gasoline and anti-pollution technology for automobiles. I've been to Paris when one could hardly see the top of the Eiffel Tower for the choking auto smog that hung over the city.
Ditto for Barcelona and London and Lisbon and Madrid, where the black grime that covered historic churches and buildings wasn't as much from the dirt of the ages as the gunk spewed from vehicles still running on leaded gas, with no emission controls. Oh, and let's not forget Mexico City, which still has air so befouled that it's not uncommon to see people on the streets wearing masks.
Spain, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and Mexico were, rightfully, ranked below the United States.
However much the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and some of its regulations have been cussed over the past 30 years, America, on balance, is now the better.
Had it not been for the EPA dragging the U.S. auto industry, kicking and screaming, into the war on air pollution through emission controls, a lot of us would probably be walking around with masks. The dollar cost has been enormous, and we pay more every time we buy an auto — but how much is breathable air worth to you, your children?
Though it was a long time coming, the smoke-belching diesel trucks are now having to clean up their act.
The U.S. electric power industry, a major polluter of air and water, also had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the environmental protection arena. Their costs, too, were enormous, and they still aren't as clean as they could be. But they're light years ahead of where they were.
Rivers and streams that were so polluted with industrial contaminants that, in one horrible instance, a river actually caught on fire, are now much improved, though there are still problems, as with the lower Mississippi River.
Agriculture, long labeled a major polluter from rampant soil erosion and fertilizer/chemical runoff, has cleaned up its act through a wide range of measures, including the increasingly widespread use of minimum- or no-till practices. Ultra-low rate, exceptionally safe pesticides, combined with precision application technology, have greatly reduced exposure to humans and wildlife, and the increasing focus on conservation measures is providing additional protection for fields, forests, and habitat.
We may not be at the top, but given the vast scope of this country and the monetary resources available, we've come a long way.