Settle down greens: Things are getting better thanks to capitalism

Now most of my green friends aren’t taking hostages at television studios. But many of them have read their Daniel Quinn, which is – as my friend Ron Bailey describes it – “Malthusian Twaddle.”

And most greens think the world is going to hell in a hand basket. When I throw away a plastic bottle, they look at me like I just shot a spotted owl. It’s almost pathological.

Many have become ‘green’ out of desperation. Either they got a hold of some long-discredited Rachel Carson or Paul Ehrlich book, live in an urban area (so think the rest of the world is becoming a city), or just got caught up in eco-fadism–say, via one of the most dubious viral videos ever made. (Note: if you want the real “Story of Stuff, you might start here.)

The Good News

But what if things really were getting better? Consider a few facts — assembled by Steven Hayward in 2009 from government and NGO sources like EPA and the UN:


> Growing evidence that the tropical rainforests may now be expanding faster than they are being cut down, [though more data are needed…]


> The world’s most severe environmental problems, as ranked by the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland, are overwhelmingly problems of poverty in developing nations. No American or Western European city ranks among the top 50 cities in the world for air pollution in a World Bank ranking.


> The U.S. Geological Survey sampling of drinking water drawn from surface waters in 17 areas around the continental United States found very low (non-hazardous) or no presence of 258 different man-made chemicals.


> Air pollution levels are falling in the 10 most polluted cities in the U.S., by as much as 27 percent over the last decade in the case of fine particulates in Los Angeles.

> Stratospheric ozone — the “good” kind of ozone, akin to “good cholesterol in blood — appears to have reversed its long-term decline and is now increasing over the U.S. The level of ozone-destroying chemical compounds in the atmosphere declined 12 percent from 1995 through 2006.

A more cynical person might think that the environmental left is putting all its eggs into the climate change basket because of these improvements–particularly those paid to be environmentalists. After all, they’re running out of issues. (But I’ll assume ignorance, not corruption.)

Institutions and Incentives Matter

I’d supplement all the good news above with something Ron Bailey pointed out in this exceptional piece: when government mucks things up (or fails to establish the right institutions), the worst tragedies take place (tragedies of the commons, that is). In fact, most of the world’s real environmental problems have to do with bad institutions in the poorest countries of the world–like a lack of property rights. An under-developed court system means it’s difficult to sue a polluter. And if it’s a “common” forest, you have every incentive to chop it down and use it before your neighbor. But the long term result is perverse and, well, unsustainable.

Property and prices can protect resources. Who’d a thunk it?

Poverty also means people can’t afford to pay for cleaner more efficient technologies. Many poor people burn dung indoors, squat next to resources they exploit and have too many children for reasons that – paradoxically – have to do with being poor.

It’s no accident that environmental good-health is closely correlated with prosperity. Wealthier is healthier. Capitalism actually allows us to afford better environmental quality. Indeed, I can only think of a single word that makes an oxymoron: “sustainability” (at least the way it’s used today). It’s hard for my green friends to grasp this, but anti-capitalism in the environmental movement is actually counterproductive if you have pure green objectives.

The Greening of Capitalism?

So greens should take heart: things are getting better. Notwithstanding the Gulf oil spill, which seems already to have been gobbled up by oil-consuming bacteria, the big picture is one of an improving state of the world. Unfortunately, good news doesn’t sell. With the exception of Matt Ridley’s new book – The Rational Optimist, Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist and a perhaps a couple of others, most of the stuff out today is either Mathusian twaddle, global warming hysteria, or calls radically to transform our lifestyles and habits (like this, this and this). People are not pollution.

Let’s dwell on three questions for a moment:

> Which countries experience overpopulation? Rich or poor?
> Which countries are the cleanest and greenest? Rich or poor?
> How did the rich countries get rich? Markets and institutions? Or strongmen and planning? (Remember what happened to the Aral Sea…)

If a better environment is something people value, the market will supply it. The market may seem like an impersonal place where people deal in trucks, iPods and soda pop while things just get dirtier. But the truth is counter-intuitive. Any value can be exchanged for any other value. Environmentalism as a value can help us bid up the price of green amenities, beautiful landscapes and clean air and water. And the richer we are, the more we can afford it.

Environmentalism as a political doctrine that goes hand-in-hand with government power and anti-capitalism is likely to make us poorer–which will eventually make us   quite less green.

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