April 27, 2011


Economists in the Wild: Far from damaging brains and killing seals, applying basic economics to the environment preserves it. (Steven F. Hayward, April 22, 2011, The American)

The rapid material advance of the last 200 years has provided more comfortable lives in several meaningful ways: It has led to longer lifespans, conquest of diseases, and the ability of the human population to grow more rapidly and securely than at any time in previous history. (It also has provided the means of transforming social and family relations, liberating women from historically “women’s work” on the farm or in the home.) In other words, human ingenuity, technology, and innovation have largely succeeded, in wealthy nations at least, in approximating the abundance of the Garden of Eden.

However, no exertion on humanity’s part, and no conceivable innovation in technology, can succeed in re-creating the original innocence of humans in the Garden of Eden. There is perhaps a corollary here: This approximation of Eden still partakes fully of human sin.

The central insight of environmentalism is that humanity’s great leap in material progress has come at a high cost to nature: we tear down entire mountains for their minerals; divert rivers and streams and drain swamps to provide water for modern agriculture and urban use; clear large amounts of forests for other uses, often disrupting crucial habitat for rare animal species; and too often dump our waste byproducts thoughtlessly into the air, water, and land.

But this insight contains a paradox. Environmentalism arose precisely because we have mitigated the material harshness of human life through the Industrial Revolution; as Aldo Leopold, author of the classic environmental book A Sand County Almanac, put it: “These wild things had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.”iv It is no coincidence that environmental sensibility arose first and has its strongest influence in wealthy nations. The affluent society does not wish to be the effluent society. Meanwhile, the poorest and most undeveloped nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America today suffer the worst environmental degradation and have the least public support for environmental protection. The wealth and technological innovation (spurred more by markets than government dictates) of industrialized nations provides the means for environmental improvement and remediation.

Air and water pollution in the United States and Europe, for example, have fallen substantially over the last 40 years (and will continue to abate in the coming decades), although they are still worsening in most underdeveloped nations. Forestlands, according to recent United Nations (UN) data, are expanding in the United States, Europe, and parts of Asia, but are still contracting in underdeveloped nations.

The point is that our conquest of nature through technology and material progress has enabled our increasing appreciation and concern for it. “The wilderness” is now regarded not as an inhospitable realm to avoid or conquer, but as a source of wonder to be celebrated and preserved. This change in outlook, however, extends beyond just our attitudes and sentiments: prosperity has also become the foundation for improving our environment.

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Posted by at April 27, 2011 5:31 AM

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