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Capitalism: The Anti-Pollutant

Here’s a letter sent this morning to USA Today:

On this Earth Day, Bjorn Lomborg scrubs with facts the noxious notions and emotions that pollute public discourse about the environment (“Earth Day: Smile, don’t shudder,” April 21).  Especially useful is his point that the world’s number one environmental killer remains the indoor air pollution suffered by persons in poor countries who burn wood, waste, and dung to cook their meals and to heat their homes.

As the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay reminded us, it wasn’t until Europeans industrialized – or, as we say today, enlarged their ‘carbon footprint’ – that they were saved from that same filthy fate.  Here’s Macaulay’s description of the dwelling of a typical 17th-century Scottish highlander:

“His lodging would sometimes have been in a hut of which every nook would have swarmed with vermin.  He would have inhaled an atmosphere thick with peat smoke, and foul with a hundred noisome exhalations….  His couch would have been the bare earth, dry or wet as the weather might be; and from that couch he would have risen half poisoned with stench, half blind with the reek of turf, and half mad with the itch.”*

We in today’s developed economies are indeed lucky to be able to worry about dangers as distant and as nebulous as global warming.

Donald J. Boudreaux

* Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England, Vol. 3 (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., n.d.), p. 279.