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Cleaned by Capitalism

On this Earth Day 2004, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and many other organizations and pundits complain about how polluted and toxic our world has become.

These complaints remind me of the cancer victim who, cured of his horrible disease by medical science, endlessly complains about the scar left from his successful surgery.

Industrial, developed economies do produce certain kinds of pollution that our preindustrial ancestors did not have to endure. (Although even this fact isn’t as universal as you might think. A recent story in Nature detailed the high levels of lead pollution generated by medieval Celtic miners.) But the overwhelming fact — a fact so overwhelming it goes unnoticed — is just how incredibly clean, sanitary, and healthy our lives are compared to the lives of our pre-industrial ancestors.

We live today in houses with solid floors and roofs — as distinct from dwellings featuring dirt floors and vermin-infested thatched roofs that were typical for most of human history (and that are still common today in undeveloped countries). Automobiles keep our streets free of horse dung and the swarms of flies attracted to it. We have several changes of clean clothes, and inexpensive laundry detergent that we use to recycle our clothing for use after use after use.

Inexpensive soaps, shampoos, and toothpastes combine with reliable running water in our homes to provide us with a daily level of personal hygiene and physical attractiveness that were out of reach for even the wealthiest nobleman of 500 or 5,000 years ago.

We have household cleaning agents, plastic wraps, and refrigeration – not to mention antibiotics – that protect us from lethal bacteria.

This list of how capitalism and commerce make our lives cleaner and healthier goes on and on. On balance, capitalism has done far more to clean our living environments than it’s done to pollute them. It’s good to keep this perspective in mind when listening to the loud complaints of unchecked pollution.