April 22, 2005

Capitalism and environment

Don Boudreaux asks in Cafe Hayek: "Does capitalism and industry really make our environment dirtier and more dangerous?"

"Pause for a moment to appreciate just how clean and safe our everyday environments are compared to those of our ancestors.

- Refrigeration keeps our food free of bacterial pollution;
- indoor plumbing immediately whisks away our own waste;
- household detergents clean our homes of germs and grime;
- automobiles keep our streets clean of horse manure and the swarms of flies it attracts;
- antibiotics and other medicines protect our bodies from many diseases, such as tuberculosis, that were major killers just a century ago.

In fact, our everyday lives are more sanitary and healthier today than at any time in history."

(I add another major factor to Boudreaux's list. In developed countries we have abandoned traditional fuels such as firewood and charcoal that, when burned for cooking and heating, release harmful particles and chemicals, and inefficiently large quantities of carbon.)

Indeed our proximate environment, that of our homes, workplaces and streets, is healthier today than ever. However, we are greatly altering (making it dirtier, according to my own taste) the more "distant" environment. We are doing so by discharging carbon dioxide and other chemicals, by transforming wildlands and by reducing biodiversity.

Maybe development makes our (distant) environment dirtier. But let me put a large share of the blame on governments rather than capitalism. Governments and their interference with markets and the property of natural resources make our environment dirtier. Just think about government subsidies to oil, coal, transportation, fisheries, farming, and timber extraction.

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