Globally, humans are better off today than on the first Earth Day

Fifty years ago, some scientists weren’t sure civilization would survive the century. It did—and there’s been a huge surge in human well-being.

Let me date myself right away by saying that I attended a demonstration on the first Earth Day, in 1970. The mood, as I recall it, was both joyous and solemn. Joyous because we were collectively celebrating, for the first time in U.S. history, the natural world around us. Solemn because the voices from the podium were issuing dire prophecies about the fate awaiting that natural world.

Such warnings were heard everywhere then. The Nobel Prize–winning biochemist George Wald explained to an audience at the University of Rhode Island that unless immediate action was taken, civilization would end within 15 or 30 years. According to Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, that kind of prediction was overly hopeful. In an interview published for Earth Day, Ehrlich proposed that the planet had only two years left to change course before all “further efforts [to save it] will be futile.” Too optimistic still, believed Earth Day national coordinator Denis Hayes. In an Earth Day–timed article for the Wilderness Society magazine, Hayes argued that it was “already too late to avoid mass starvation.”

It’s easy to understand why they believed this: The global situation was calamitous. At the time of the first Earth Day, about one out of every four people in the world was hungry—“undernourished,” to use the term preferred by the United Nations. About half the world was living in extreme poverty. The average life expectancy in Africa was a mere 45.6 years. Roughly half of Latin America and the Caribbean lacked electricity and access to education. Famines in West Africa had just killed about a million people. Wars, revolts, and insurgencies were raging in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines), Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, the Portuguese colonies), the Middle East (Oman, Yemen, Jordan), and Latin America (Nicaragua, Colombia, Mexico). A flu pandemic that began in Asia was exploding through much of the rest of the world; it would kill a million people before it was over.

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