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Last month my wife and I walked to Cana Island. It doesn't take supernatural powers, just a good pair of shoes and a willingness to be surprised. We followed a rocky isthmus a few yards wide from the Wisconsin mainland to the "island" and its private residence and lighthouse. Once there, a short woodsy path brought us to the buildings, which sat in the middle of an expanse of mowed grass and flowers, ringed by a stone wall and sheltered by bushes and trees. The whole island, I guessed, would fit in a couple of large suburban lots. The Coast Guard still runs the lighthouse and doesn't welcome visitors, so we strolled around and enjoyed the shade and the lake. I passed the time by reading the island's history as posted near an outbuilding--and was astonished. According to that sun-bleached piece of paper, everything green on Cana Island is as much people's doing as the lighthouse.

In 1869 the government built the lighthouse on what was then a barren rocky ledge. Some decades later people and teams of horses hauled every bit of soil over from the mainland. No one who hasn't hefted a five-gallon bucket of dirt can appreciate their effort. Without it, no grass, no bush, no tree, no bird, no wild mammal would live on Cana Island today.

Hmm, I thought. Human beings do nature a favor for once. I read on and was surprised again, this time by the written goal of the local volunteer group that keeps the island open to the public: to keep it the way it was.

I stepped back and stared at the canopy of leaves overhead. What could that phrase mean? "The way it was" when? Before the lighthouse? After the lighthouse but before the soil was brought in? After the soil but before the trees grew tall?

The volunteers are doing the work, so in terms of historic preservation I suppose they're entitled to choose their favorite period. But in terms of nature, "keeping it the way it was" makes no sense. Cana Island today is an artifact of human benevolence, not something precious and "natural" that must be defended against any human alteration.

If a tiny speck in Lake Michigan can so confuse the people who know it best, how can we think straight about nature as a whole? It often seems like we can't. Environmental pessimists look at the natural world the way the volunteers seem to look at Cana Island--a place where, in the words of 19th-century poet Reginald Heber, "every prospect pleases, and only man is vile." They wallow in eco-guilt, ignoring the paradoxes of history and the possibility that human beings can do good by doing something other than simply standing aside. The popular notion that North America was an untouched "natural Eden" when rapacious white people first laid eyes on it--in fact, Native Americans had already significantly changed its ecology--is parallel to the idea that Cana Island should be kept "the way it was."

In contrast, environmental optimists--a smaller group, to be sure--tend to wallow in self-congratulation. They like to tell how human beings have improved on nature--breeding the corn plant, eradicating smallpox--while minimizing or ignoring the damage we've done.

Both groups have been as shameless as TV weatherpeople about making wild forecasts that don't come true. The pessimists predicted worldwide famine and global cooling in the 1970s, catastrophic acid rain and global warming in the 1980s. The optimists and their forebears believed that passenger pigeons would never disappear, that rivers would cleanse themselves.

These days Congress may be in the hands of optimistic idiots, but the White House, most of the media, and most environmental groups remain fixated on pessimism. There's not much middle ground. If you care more about the natural world than about scratching an ideological itch, how can you get good information? You could immerse yourself in the scientific literature--if you had the advanced degrees and no job. You could read the admirably clear-headed Garbage magazine--but it folded last year.

Fortunately in Illinois you can consult the eight volumes of The Changing Illinois Environment: Critical Trends, a summary of what's known about the state's air, water, land, waste disposal, ecological resources, and "sources of environmental stress." The product of the continuing Critical Trends Assessment Project (CTAP), now headquartered in the state Department of Natural Resources, the report drew on experts in the Illinois State Geological Survey, Illinois State Water Survey, Illinois Natural History Survey, Hazardous Waste Research and Information Center, and Illinois EPA, among others.

"No other state has done anything comparable," says U.S. EPA policy analyst Nathan Wilkes. "We use it as our premier example of state indicator reports." The focus is local and regional, not global, but you can't have everything.

CTAP got little publicity when the report was released last fall, since it was competing with an election campaign. The report is bulky, and its story line--pollution's better, habitat's worse, research is insufficient--couldn't compete with Baby Richard and Mel Reynolds. "People are making use of it," says KarenWitter, a prime mover in CTAP and now assistant to the director of the Department of Natural Resources. "But there are no surprises. It's just putting everything in one place. We haven't discovered some terrible chemical that's causing a problem." Maybe it's interesting only if you want to know what's really going on out there.

Concentrated corporate power [is] the source of pollution," declared James Ridgeway in 1970 in The Politics of Ecology, a book Studs Terkel praised as "brilliant" at the time. "It is impossible to do much of anything about pollution without first achieving some sort of fundamental idea of community and a political economy...opening up the possibilities of revolutionary change."

Luckily, Ridgeway was wrong. Corporations have spent the 25 years since then buying each other up without restraint, but plenty has been done about pollution. According to the CTAP report:

Factories have become cleaner, and not because they've been shutting down. For every million dollars' worth of goods manufactured in 1973 Illinois smokestacks belched out four tons of particulate pollution. In 1989 (with output measured in constant dollars to correct for inflation) the amount was just over half a ton. The percentage reduction was even greater in Cook County. Similarly, sulfur dioxide emissions per million dollars dropped from 5.5 to 1.9 tons. Nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide each declined by more than half. Air pollution produced by fossil-fuel-burning power plants also improved, though not as much.

Cars have become much cleaner. Illinoisans drove 40 percent more miles in 1991 than in 1973--and still put out 45 percent less carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds.

As the emissions data suggest, the air itself is cleaner. Most pollutants have declined; none is increasing. Average visibility in Chicago is better now than in the 1950s.

The once-foul Illinois River is cleaner. Pollution-tolerant goldfish and carp made up 61 percent of all fish surveyed in 1963, but less than 6 percent in 1992. Other species, including more native species, have taken their place. Dramatically fewer fish have the sores and eroded fins typical of severe pollution exposure. Sediment cores used to track pollution history confirm the biological evidence: lead levels in river water, for example, peaked in the late 1960s and have since declined by about half.

In the late 1960s Illinois farmers put soil insecticides on 70 percent of the land they planted with corn; now they treat less than 30 percent. In general the area treated with other insecticides and herbicides is up, but the dosage per acre is down.

Even the long-standing and seemingly intractable problem of soil erosion from farm fields may be easing. The statewide average dropped from four hundredths of an inch of soil lost per year in 1982 to three hundredths in 1987.

Energy is being used 50 percent more efficiently than in 1972. Back then it took a million BTUs of energy to produce $46 worth of goods and services. In 1990 the same amount of energy produced $70 worth (corrected for inflation). As a result, Illinois' total energy consumption is growing at only 0.7 percent a year (compared to 3 percent in the 1960s and 1970s) and remains well below its 1978 peak.

Hard to believe, isn't it? Of course there's more to the story. Fish near Chicago still have more problems than those downstream; the Lake Calumet area remains a bad spot for multiple air pollutants; the most dangerous kind of dust pollution, called PM-10, hasn't been measured long enough to establish a trend. But let's take a moment to bask in the established fact: reformist environmentalism worked. Government regulation, public outcry, and improved technology together have cleaned up a lot in the last quarter century, without noticeably impairing the economy. They need to do more, and they can--if they aren't derailed by doom-obsessed dogmatists on the left or by wealth-crazed weasels on the right.

Strangely, these days the left is feeding the right its lines. Vice President Al Gore introduced a new edition of Silent Spring last year by writing that "the environmental crisis has grown worse, not better" since Rachel Carson's landmark book was first published in 1962. (Gee, Al, if that's really all the good we've gotten from 100-some relevant laws, why not repeal them?) In the June issue of the Progressive Review Richard Grossman of the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy claims that past environmental struggles have achieved only the passage of "laws which legalized the poisoning of the air and water." Moving from the dubious to the demented at a recent Utne Reader forum in New York City, author Kirkpatrick Sale declared that industrial civilization "is leading the world to the verge of ecocide, the final extinction of surface life as we know it," then proceeded to smash a computer onstage.

This kind of fashionable pessimism can be spread by silence as well as by misstatement. Readers of the Chicago-based Conscious Choice have learned plenty of bad news about potential lead hazards from the city's Northwest Incinerator. They haven't read there the general good news about lead, detailed in the July 27, 1994, Journal of the American Medical Association and brought about by years of pressure from environmentalists: The average level of lead in the blood of Americans dropped by 78 percent--from 13 to 3 micrograms per deciliter--during the 1980s.

As journalist Gregg Easterbrook told one interviewer, "Nobody has yet created a vocabulary in which you can discuss positive trends without sounding like someone who's opposed to environmentalism as a social force." Easterbrook, author of A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, has taken on the thankless task of trying to get environmentalists to acknowledge and reflect on their successes. After all, he writes, "In other policy areas where liberalism has been the dominant mode of thought--such as public education, welfare, and crime--the results of postwar politics are at best debatable." But environmental laws and regulations have "brought to the public visible benefits within the lifetimes of the taxpayers who made the investments."

Using journalistic license to blend science and wonder, Easterbrook argues in 23 fact-packed chapters that nature isn't as fragile as we tend to assume. "The opossum is believed to have existed for at least 60 million years. That is to say the opossum, a delicate thing easily harmed, is far older than the Rocky Mountains, a seemingly indestructible mass of dense minerals hewn from Earth's very continental plates....The sandhill crane seems to have existed for at least nine million years, perhaps making migratory stops along the area of the North Platte River of Nebraska, a favored present-day calling point, much of that time. The North Platte itself is somewhere around 15,000 years old. That is to say the sandhill crane, a fragile living thing today called endangered, is far, far older than the river at which it calls." He notes that former pollution hot spots like Boston Harbor have been recovering decades faster than expected. (The same appears to be true of Alaska's Prince William Sound following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, according to Jeff Wheelwright's engrossing Degrees of Disaster: Prince William Sound--How Nature Reels and Rebounds.)

Furthermore, Easterbrook writes, recent research suggests that human intervention isn't different in kind from natural cataclysms. Greenland ice cores seem to suggest that about 11,000 years ago temperatures in North America fell nine degrees Fahrenheit in just 40 years--a jump comparable to high-end global-warming projections and no doubt terribly disruptive to the environment. Similarly, thousands of chemical compounds once thought to be uniquely human and unnatural pollutants--chlorinated hydrocarbons, including dioxin--have been found to occur throughout the natural world.

That nature is harsh does not excuse human malfeasance, but it does put it in perspective. Easterbrook does not say that the environmentalists' work is done--quite the opposite. But he would like them to focus on real threats (such as polluted drinking water in the third world, which killed 3.8 million children in 1993) rather than marginal ones (such as asbestos removal, the hugely expensive result of a largely unfounded 1980s environmental scare).

With essential help from environmental laws and regulations, Easterbrook says, industries in the developed world are doing more with less. "In 1976 the best-selling sedan, the Chevrolet Caprice, weighed 4,424 pounds and went 16 miles on a gallon of gasoline. By 1993 the best-selling sedan, the Ford Taurus, weighed 3,420 pounds and recorded 29 miles per gallon....Fax machines and modems are high tech compared to the postal van yet are also clean tech, able to send messages essentially unlimited distances with almost no expenditure of resources. New jetliners such as the Boeing 757 and Airbus 320 burn 30 percent less fuel per passenger-mile than jetliners of a decade ago, while not emitting the ear-splitting thunder of earlier transports. Coming jetliners such as the Boeing 777 will burn 50 percent less fuel per seat-mile and radiate still fewer decibels. Twenty years ago 164 pounds of metal were expended during the manufacture of 1,000 soda cans. Today the figure is 35 pounds.

"Pessimists assume machines become ever more dangerous and more voracious in use of resources. There is no reason this need be so: Already most trends are in the opposite, clean-tech direction. It's hard to think of any important current product that requires significantly more resources than what it supplants or creates significantly more waste....Sophisticated machines don't pollute. Only crude ones do. And the age of the crude machine is nearly over."

Reviewers on the right have chided Easterbrook for not going all the way and submitting to a free-market faith. Environmental and leftist publications, like Amicus Journal and the Nation, imagine that he's already done so and have chosen to lambaste the messenger rather than discuss the message. A welcome exception, the Environmental Defense Fund issued a thoroughly footnoted list of alleged scientific errors in key chapters.

Fortunately, on Illinois environmental issues we don't have to peer through this fog of charge and countercharge. The CTAP report is nonpolemical and nonpolitical. It makes the pessimists look foolish. It provides support for some of Easterbrook's optimism--but by no means all of it. In particular, natural habitats aren't doing as well as he suggests. In the words of CTAP's highly readable summary volume, "high-quality wetlands, forests, and prairies in Illinois tend to be very small and thus vulnerable to changes in their immediate environment. As niche environments disappear, niche species dependent on them disappear as well. The result is a trend toward a generic Illinois environment populated mainly by 'generalist' species able to exploit simplified ecosystems. These species include deer, certain weeds, carp, starlings, and--one of the most successful--Homo sapiens," who may prefer a little more variety when it comes to companions. According to the CTAP report:

Lake trout were extirpated from Lake Michigan in the 1950s, probably due to overfishing by Homo sapiens and predation by the nonnative sea lamprey. Thirty years of lamprey control and lake-trout stocking have failed to reestablish a self-sustaining population. A once-fertile fishery now depends on human micromanagement, and for the past few decades, according to the brief history in the CTAP summary volume, it has had all the stability of a kid learning to ride a bicycle: "The decimation of the lake's natural predators [such as lake trout] by the sea lamprey in the 1950s allowed populations of their common prey, the tiny alewife, to explode. The alewife then decimated native prey fish such as the emerald shiner. The alewife in turn so proliferated that it outpaced its food supply and suffered beach-clogging die-offs in the 1960s; the die-offs, in turn, starved the introduced salmonid sportfish that, having been introduced to control the alewife, had come to depend on it."

Restored prairies may look like the real thing, but they contain "at most one-fourth to one-half of the plant species that would be found in a natural prairie remnant of comparable size." And even in 1976 only one ten-thousandth of the original prairie acreage remained, most in tiny parcels of less than five acres.

Eroded soil continues to fill and pollute lakes and rivers. Dirt may not make a good scare line for fund-raising letters, but it's arguably the state's worst water pollutant. First it clouds the water, then it renders the bottom a fluid mess in which plants can't take root. Any improvements in erosion control on farms are not yet noticeable downstream: for example, except where it's dredged for barge traffic, Peoria Lake has lost up to ten feet of water depth since 1903.

Although most nonnative plants and animals appear to cause little harm, a few, including the zebra mussel and garlic mustard, are proliferating wildly and threaten to overwhelm less aggressive natives.

Since 1900 in Illinois rivers 7 percent of fish species, 2 percent of reptiles and amphibians, and 19 percent of mussels have been extirpated--29 flowing-water species altogether. Another 65 or so are considered to be in danger.

Too much state scientific research is concerned with monitoring regulatory compliance, rather than with assessing the health of ecosystems. Air pollutants tend to be measured only in places that have been problematic in the past, rather than evenly across the state. The Sediment Benchmark Network, set up in 1981 with 120 recording stations, had only 40 stations left by 1990, most of them only two or three years old. Restored and created wetlands are seldom checked to see if they're functioning like the natural wetlands they replaced.

Today nearly all North American forestry trends are positive," Easterbrook writes. "If there is anything in ecological matters that is not a problem it is the forest. " Not true, according to CTAP. Illinois forests--home to more than three-quarters of the state's wildlife habitat and more than half of the state's threatened and endangered plant species--are a good place to remember that the pessimists' errors don't make the optimists right.

The vulgar environmental notion is that we're losing our forests, that they're being cut down faster than they can grow. That seems to be false, according to the CTAP report, though it depends on how you count. Illinois' wooded acreage dropped from 14 million acres in 1820 (39 percent of the state) to 3 million acres in 1920 (8.5 percent), and then rebounded to 4.25 million acres (12 percent) by 1985. If you measure forests by sheer volume they've rebounded from 3.4 billion cubic feet of timber in 1962 to 4.8 billion in 1985. Finally, current annual growth is 96 million cubic feet; loggers take only 69 million.

But that last figure has to be qualified. If you add natural tree deaths to losses from logging, the total cubic footage lost per year ("biomass" to ecologists) is now greater than the annual growth. Mark Schwartz, affiliate professional scientist at the Illinois Natural History Survey and coauthor of the CTAP chapter on forests, doesn't find this alarming. You can gain wooded acreage and lose biomass at the same time, he explains, because the harvested and dying trees tend to be the big ones. It's small young trees that are covering new land, and they don't grow as fast, in part because they're growing on what were once marginal farms. (That in itself is clearly good news for nature and people both. There's no harder work than trying to earn a living from poor soil, and forest plants are more likely to hold soil in place than a field of corn.) "Marginal farmland is marginal forestland," says Schwartz, "so it's to be expected that the trees will grow relatively slowly." But he says the long-run prospect seems good.

Forest quality is another matter, one that Easterbrook and other optimists tend to downplay. Today Illinois forests are about half oak and hickory trees and about one-quarter sugar maples. Since 1962 the oaks have declined by 14 percent, while sugar-maple acreage has grown by an amazing 4,100 percent (obviously, from a very small start). The cause is nothing obviously sinister--it's just that Illinois doesn't have prairie fires anymore, so our forests are shadier. Maple seedlings can grow in shade; baby oaks and hickories can't. Schwartz counts the trend to maple woods as a net loss, for several reasons. Dense maple-dominated forests will gradually shade out those plants that need sun, reducing the diversity of species growing on the forest floor. Maple seeds are less nutritious food for wild animals than acorns. And maple trees make less valuable timber for humans than oaks and hickories. Still, Schwartz acknowledges, "Aesthetically, most people would probably respond more favorably to a maple forest than an oak-hickory one."

Fragmentation is also a problem. The vast majority of trees in Illinois are in patches of less than ten acres. The smaller a patch of woods, the more edge it has relative to its inside. Streamside woods, very common in the state, are virtually all edge. That's great for adaptable, edge-loving "generalist" wildlife like deer and raccoons and robins, and for aggressive exotic plants. It's bad news for native plants trying to compete, and it's especially bad news for a sizable group of migrant songbirds. These warblers, vireos, and tanagers (aka Neotropical migrants) winter in Central and South America and summer in Illinois--nesting, singing, and eating insects. They need to nest in deep woods (perhaps as large as 600 acres or more) to avoid edge-dwelling predators and the parasitical cowbirds that lay eggs in their nests.

These songbirds aren't yet threatened or endangered, but their predicament isn't hypothetical. In 1927 they made up 70 percent of all breeding birds in Trelease Woods, a relatively small (58-acre) Champaign County woodland. Sixty-five years later, in 1992, the number of breeding birds remained the same, but songbirds made up only 25 percent of them. More generally, fragmented forests make it harder for separate groups of deep-woods species to interbreed or move from one area to another, leaving them vulnerable to population declines or one-shot disasters such as tornado strikes. "Few, if any [forest bird] species have been lost during the 20th century," the CTAP authors conclude, "but...a large group of species may be in trouble. If trends persist, one-third to one-half the species typical of Illinois' forests may disappear from many areas."

Not only are most of the woods too small, but they may not even qualify as forest. "A replanted stand of trees is not quite the same thing as a forest," sneers T.H. Watkins in Wilderness magazine as he dismisses Easterbrook's book. But that begs the question of what you want a forest for. And Easterbrook is quick to point out that young forests have been found to harbor more wildlife species than old ones (186 species to 152 in the Pacific Northwest). The extra species may be "weedy" or widespread exotic invaders in no danger of extinction, but so what? asks Easterbrook. "The notion that owls or murlets are more deserving than deer no more springs from the natural condition than do the finished two-by-fours in your couch. " Don't all species have a right to life? We may choose to endorse such a value, says Easterbrook, but it's our own call. "No one who studies natural history with an open mind can find in it any indication that nature has ever conferred on any species a right to exist. There are only moments on the Earth, given and taken away."

Out of the philosophical quagmire and back on factual ground, the CTAP report cites a 1993 comparison of old-growth and second-growth forests in the Appalachian mountains. Researchers found that after 80 years the second-growth timber had yet to recover all the plant diversity of the original. "It's somewhat questionable to apply that study to Illinois," explains Schwartz, but we don't have a lot of choice. No analogous study has been done here because the old growth needed for comparison is virtually all gone. "You'd be hard put to replicate that work anywhere this side of the Appalachians." In short, for "every forestry trend" to be positive in Illinois, we would need more fire, less fragmentation, ways to contain invasive exotics, and a hundred or more years to regenerate some old growth. These things may be attainable, but they won't be easy. Maybe we can get Easterbrook to come and help pull garlic mustard out of the nature preserves next spring.

CTAP was supposed to help the state government set environmental priorities, and oddly enough it seems to be doing just that. Both the 1993 Water Resources and Land Use Priorities Task Force and the Conservation Congress in both 1993 and '94 emphasized habitat problems. And Governor Jim Edgar just signed into law Conservation 2000, a six-year, $100-million package of habitat-improving initiatives, which he described as "the largest resource stewardship effort ever undertaken by this state."

Among other things, the money will go to research (including "son of CTAP"), to soil-erosion control, and to encouraging cooperation between the state and private landowners in minimizing habitat fragmentation. The new state Department of Natural Resources is especially interested in "macrosites," a clunky word for large tracts of habitat like the former Joliet Arsenal southwest of the city and "Site M," 15,000 acres in downstate Cass County once slated for a Com Ed power plant. But they're publicly owned and therefore atypical; most of Illinois is in private hands and will remain so.

The goal for macrosites is no longer to simply preserve natural areas in isolation from their surroundings, according to Brian Anderson, director of the state Nature Preserves Commission. That approach won't work: the areas are too small and the unpreserved areas around them too desertlike. A field of soybeans can be as hostile to songbirds as the original Cana Island. The new idea, he explains, is to encourage private owners to use farming and development techniques--such as no-till farming or "clustered" subdivisions with unbuilt, protected areas--that can make the spaces between natural areas less forbidding to wildlife. In the past, he says, "We were protecting and preserving biodiversity" in the nature preserves. "We lost track of it as something we ought to live in and be part of."

Conservation 2000 is no Manhattan Project for the environment. It does not include some hot-potato ideas that had been proposed, such as a dedicated sales tax for conservation or limited state land-use planning powers. As for money, bringing soil erosion down to tolerable levels (not zero) by 2000 has been estimated to cost $830 million; Conservation 2000 allocates $25 million. "It certainly takes steps in the right direction," concludes Virginia Scott, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. "You are not going to find a billion-dollar program being proposed or being accepted in the current economic and social climate. I think there's been a pattern of political will here [in the Edgar administration] for stewardship of land and water resources. I wish we could identify as many points of willingness to get out in front on pollution prevention."

These days the history of Easter Island--an isolated Pacific island deforested to the point of ecological catastrophe and cultural collapse by its prehistoric inhabitants--is being served up on TV and in popular science magazines as the gruesome fate of planet earth writ small, unless human beings quickly decide to become fewer and poorer. Judging from his book, Gregg Easterbrook would say the comparison is partly just wrong and the rest oversimplified. If you must have an island metaphor Cana Island is still too simple, but it's probably more useful.

The CTAP report is science, not metaphor. It doesn't prove that environmental pessimism is right or wrong. That's a judgment question, not a scientific question. Conservatives who preach that environmental policy should be based on "sound science" are right in a way, since it certainly shouldn't be based on fictions or wild guesses (which is why congressional conservatives, if they're sincere in their professed desire to protect the environment more efficiently, should increase funding for research). But they're missing the larger point. Knowing all the facts in those eight volumes won't tell you how to think about them.

Science is like an unfinished community mosaic. Each researcher adds a few tiny spots of color here and there. The media hype randomly selected spots of color without understanding the whole. The rest of us must make choices--how to vote, how to spend money, where to live--according to what we guess that mosaic may eventually look like. Without more research like that done by CTAP, we won't make very good choices.

A biologist can find out how much zinc it takes to kill half the bluegills in a tank. Her results won't tell us whether we should be pleased that there's now less zinc in the water than there used to be or upset that there's still any at all. She certainly can't tell us if we should smash our IBM clones and go foraging for nuts and berries.

The Changing Illinois Environment: Critical Trends, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, free (on-line at or call 217-524-1109)

A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism by Gregg Easterbrook, Viking, $27.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Flynn.

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