On this Earth Day, I celebrate capitalism — the institution that, far more than any other, has made human lives clean, safe, dignified, and culturally rich. Capitalism is also responsible for giving people the wealth and leisure to permit them to mis-perceive nature as loving and bountiful, and to enjoy nature in a way that few of our pre-industrial ancestors could ever have enjoyed it.
So, on this Earth Day, I offer you here my essay, inspired by the work of Julian Simon, entitled "Cleaned by Capitalism." Here are the central paragraphs:
Before refrigeration, people ran enormous risks of ingesting deadly bacteria whenever they ate meat or dairy products. Refrigeration has dramatically reduced the bacteria pollution that constantly haunted our pre-twentieth-century forebears.
We wear clean clothes; our ancestors wore foul clothes. Pre-industrial humans had no washers, dryers, or sanitary laundry detergent. Clothes were worn day after day without being washed. And when they were washed, the detergent was often made of urine.
Our bodies today are much cleaner. Sanitary soap is dirt cheap (so to speak), as is clean water from household taps. The result is that, unlike our ancestors, we moderns bathe frequently. Not only was soap a luxury until just a few generations ago, but because nearly all of our pre-industrial ancestors could afford nothing larger than minuscule cottages, there were no bathrooms (and certainly no running water). Baths, when taken, were taken in nearby streams, rivers, or ponds, often the same bodies of water used by the farm animals. Forget about shampoo, clean towels, toothpaste, mouthwash, and toilet tissue.
The interiors of our homes are immaculate compared to the squalid interiors of almost all pre-industrial dwellings. These dwellings’ floors were typically just dirt, which made the farm animals feel right at home when they wintered in the house with humans. Of course, there was no indoor plumbing. Nor were there household disinfectants, save sunlight. Unfortunately, because pre-industrial window panes were too expensive for ordinary families and because screens are an invention of the industrial age, sunlight and fresh air could be let into these cottages only by letting in insects too. Also, bizarre as it sounds to us today, the roofs of these dwellings were polluted with all manner of filthy or dangerous things. Here’s the description by historians Frances and Joseph Gies, in Life in a Medieval Village, of the roofs of pre-industrial cottages:
Roofs were thatched, as from ancient times, with straw, broom or heather, or in marsh country reeds or rushes. . . . Thatched roofs had formidable drawbacks; they rotted from alternations of wet and dry, and harbored a menagerie of mice, rats, hornets, wasps, spiders, and birds; and above all they caught fire. Yet even in London they prevailed.
Peace and free trade.