TCS Daily

Good News About the Environment

By Pete Geddes - August 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Does economic growth come at the expense of environmental quality? Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean thinks not. He's right. Here's why.


Economic progress is a prerequisite for improving environmental quality. The real enemy of the environment is poverty, not affluence. Consider U.S air quality.


The EPA reports that between 1976 and 1997 ozone levels -- the major contributor to urban smog -- decreased 30.9 percent. Sulfur dioxide -- the primary component of acid rain -- decreased 66.7 percent, nitrogen oxides decreased 37.9 percent, carbon monoxide decreased 66.4 percent, and lead decreased a dramatic 97.3 percent. During that same period, U.S. GDP increased 158 percent, energy consumption 45 percent, and vehicle miles traveled 143 percent.


Most air pollution comes from motor vehicles. But emissions data shows that with each new model-year, automobiles have been cleaner than previous models. A report from the American Enterprise Institute, "No Way Back," notes this is responsible for reducing emissions by about 10 percent per year. These reductions will continue as old vehicles are replaced by cleaner ones built under ever tougher emissions standards.


Even after accounting for population growth and the popularity of SUVs, total vehicle emissions will drop at least 80 percent during the next 20 years. These reductions are unstoppable, because they depend only on older vehicles being retired and recycled in mini-mills.


This success flows from federal regulations (e.g., the Clean Air Act), technology, and affluence. The Department of Interior concluded in 1999, "Cleaner air is a direct consequence of better technologies and the enormous and sustained investments that only a rich nation could afford."


Population tells the same story. The replacement birth rate is 2.2 children per woman. The birthrate in the developed world is 1.59 and falling. This is so alarming that some countries, such as Italy and France, are subsidizing couples who have more children.


In less developed countries birth rates have fallen from six children per woman to three in just 30 years. For example in Tunisia the fertility rate has plunged to 2.08 today from 7.2 in the 1960s. In the developed world, this decline took a century.


The devastating effects of poverty are equally clear. National Geographic recently reported that the populations of western Africa apes and gorillas declined by more than half between 1983 and 2000. Illegal hunting is responsible. Over a million metric tons of "bushmeat "are taken each year from African forests. The result is the "empty forest syndrome" -- a seemingly healthy landscape devoid of wildlife.


This situation will not improve as long as tyranny and civil war preclude more constructive social institutions and opportunities. Only when people can provide the basics for their families (e.g., shelter, food, and security) will they turn their attention to environmental quality. "These wild things," Aldo Leopold reminds us in A Sand County Almanac, "had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast."


But many still misunderstand the perquisites for environmental quality. They frequently denounce modernity and markets, often urging voluntary simplicity as the progressive alternative. For example, in The Myth of the Market, Jeremy Seabrook writes, "If it had been the purpose of human activity to bring the planet to the edge of ruin, no more efficient mechanism could have been invented than the market economy."


Seabrook's comments are remarkably silly given the severe environmental devastation found throughout the former socialist economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Environmental improvement did not begin until 1990-after these nations began to create market economies.


Professor Martin Lewis of Duke University explains: "The notion that economic growth and technological progress are bad should be challenged as a threat to nature itself. 'Primal' economies have rarely been as harmonized with nature. Many have been highly destructive."


The rise of environmental awareness is a striking social development. Our choice is not between doomsday prophecies or Pollyannas denying that environmental problems exist.


We face real and worrisome environmental problems. But they are being solved in every nation that adopts institutions that holds people accountable for the consequences of their actions. This is both an explanation for environmental progress and a cause for optimism.


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