Today environmentalists bemoan the state of the environment. But the truth is that the human environment has never been better.
Undeveloped nature is a brutal, filthy, dangerous place for human beings. It’s filled with dirt, disease, uncooperative weather, unfriendly creatures, and occasional natural disasters.
Transforming nature into a place hospitable to human life is a daunting challenge. It is no accident that, for most of human history, our standard of living hovered just above the level of subsistence and most people died before they hit thirty.
It was capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution it spawned, that changed the equation. Starting toward the end of the 19th century, human beings began improving their environment in incredible ways. They:
- Employed industrial scale energy to develop nature on an unprecedented scale
- Solved the problem of hunger, producing abundant amounts of food even as fewer people worked in food-related industries
- Created modern medicine, eradicating many diseases that had plagued men throughout history
- Created new modes of sanitation, including sewage treatment plants and indoor plumbing, thereby removing waste that had once crowded the human environment
- Invented new modes of transportation, like trains and cars, that eliminated horse dung from the streets, while expanding people’s ease of movement
- Created air conditioning and smoke-free indoor heating
- And much, much more.
What were the results? Population exploded, life-expectancy more than doubled, and for the first time in history each generation lived better than the generation that came before.
Now what about dirty air and water? First of all, pollution must be looked at in the larger context of our need to develop nature so as to constantly improve the human environment. Greens often point to real or alleged side-effects of industrial progress and argue that the solution to any problem is to ban or restrict industrial development. But this is simply foolish. No human activity is free of risks or undesirable secondary effects. (Should prehistoric man have banned fire because of the dangerous smoke it produced?) Industrial development keeps us alive—the goal must be to minimize its less-desirable byproducts without undercutting its life-giving benefits.
That said, something like air pollution is often viewed as a problem created by industrial capitalism and solved only by interventionist government. In fact, the problem of air pollution is as old as human history—and it’s a problem that capitalism has largely solved. The most dangerous elements of air pollution are particles (smoke and soot) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). In London, the area for which the best data are available, these contaminants started increasing around the 16th century, peaking in the late 19th century. Since then, however, air pollution in London has plummeted; by the end of the 20th century, there was less smoke, soot, and SO2 in London’s air than in 1585.
What explains that decline? It can’t be government—the British Clean Air Act wasn’t passed until 1956, and studies haven’t shown a significant decrease in the rate of decline before and after the Act. Instead, the explanation is technological innovation—more efficient production processes yield less and less pollution. Pollution is not primarily a political problem, but a scientific and technological one.
There is a role for government when it comes to pollution—not to intrude on individual rights, but to protect them. The application of property rights to pollution is no simple matter, but the basic point is straightforward: no one has the right to cause physical damage or physical harm to another person or his property. If emissions from a specific individual or business pose a genuine threat to you, a proper government will (under the appropriate circumstances) provide an effective remedy (injunctions, damages, etc.).
Laissez-faire Capitalism is concerned with the constant improvement of the human environment. It is not, however, concerned with the non-human environment—it is not concerned with preserving untouched wilderness at the expense of human beings. If, under capitalism, someone wants to protect a given patch of land or a given animal, he is free to do so using his own property. But he cannot expect the government to sacrifice human well-being for the sake of bugs and weeds.
- Julian Simon – The State of Humanity
- Jay Lehr – Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns
- Bjørn Lomborg – The Skeptical Environmentalist
- Julian Simon – The Ultimate Resource 2
- Onkar Ghate – What’s Wrong With Environmentalism
- Keith Lockitch – Climate Vulnerability and the Indispensable Value of Industrial Capitalism
- Keith Lockitch and Alex Epstein – The Ayn Rand Center Responds to Earth Day
- Keith Lockitch and Onkar Ghate – Earth Day: A Day Worth Celebrating?
- Heartland Institute – Climate Change Reconsidered
- Alex Epstein – The Industrialist Manifesto