Eco-Doom: Think Globally, Panic Locally

Back when I was writing a book with Joel Schwartz on conventional air pollution around 2005, we were struck how the media everywhere covered the issue with a reverse Lake Woebegone effect: our local area has “some of the worst” air pollution in the whole country! Of course, even without looking at the actual data, this is obviously nonsense—if everywhere has “some of the worst” air pollution, then nowhere is worse than any place else. (For the record, California’s conventional air pollution levels back then were always way above just about anywhere else in the nation.)

Here’s a compilation we came up with from media coverage in the early 2000s:

Here are a few among many examples. Chicago, the Chicago Sun-Times reports, has “some of the worst air pollution in the nation.”  The Dallas-Fort Worth area has “some of the country’s worst air” claims the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The Baltimore Sun says Baltimore has “some of the worst air pollution in the country” as well. The New York metropolitan area? “some of the country’s dirtiest air” according to the Westchester Journal-News. Atlanta, according to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, has “some of the worst air pollution in the country.”  The Washington Post puts not only the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area but also Phoenix in the “some of the worst air pollution” fraternity.

Sometimes it is entire states that have “some of the worst air pollution.”  New Jersey, the Bergen County Recordsays, has “some of the worst air pollution in the country.” But just across the Hudson River the New York Times claims it is the State of New York that “has some of the nation’s dirtiest air,” but also that “the smog in Connecticut is among the worst in the nation.” Tennessee experiences “some of the worst air pollution in America,” according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Maryland is “faced with some of the worst air pollution in the country,” according to the Baltimore Sun.

The citations above came from journalists and editors, who get much of their information from environmental activists. But activists also make many “some of the worst” claims directly. For example, the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group claims, “Passaic County [New Jersey] suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the country.” North Carolina PIRG says North Carolina “has some of the worst air quality in the country.”Ohio PIRG claims it is Ohio that has “some of the worst air pollution of any state.”  Tennessee Conservation Voters claims Tennessee has “some of the worst air pollution” in the country.” The New York chapter of the American Lung Association impugns New York State’s air as being “on par with some of the worst polluted air in the country.” 

You’d think this would get embarrassing after a while. And today—guess what global environmental catastrophe is having disproportionate effects on local areas according to the media? If course you don’t have to guess, but someone has put together this nice montage that makes the point:


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