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Polluted History

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Bravo for Bjorn Lomborg’s plea for western elites to put their pet environmental concerns in proper context (“Feel-Good Environmentalism at the U.N.,” June 21).  As he notes, today’s most lethal pollutants aren’t industrial greenhouse gases but, rather, pre-industrial dangers – still prominent in developing countries – like “smoke from inefficient and dirty fuels such as dried animal dung, crop residues and wood.”  We in the developed world have cleansed our environment of these most lethal pollutants by relying upon the very ‘non-green’ technologies that chic environmentalists, ignorant of history, portray as unprecedentedly horrific sources of pollution.

Indeed, industrial capitalism is history’s greatest anti-pollutant.  Asphalt and automobiles, for example, combine to cleanse our cities and towns of the bacteria and insects (and stench) that are inseparable from animal-powered transportation.  The petroleum used to make asphalt and to power automobiles is used also to make plastic wraps that keep our foods unpolluted, and to produce pharmaceuticals that keep our bodies cleaner and healthier.

To list all of the ways that industrial capitalism depollutes our environment requires several volumes.  Yet we need only look around our homes for compelling evidence – evidence in the form of the solid (i.e., non-thatched) roofs above our heads and solid (i.e., non-dirt) floors beneath our feet; potable water running from faucets; indoor plumbing; antibacterial ointments and antibiotics; refrigerators and freezers and laundry detergents and automatic washing machines and vacuum cleaners and light bulbs and gas cooktops and electric heat-pumps….  The list of ways in which the developed world has been cleaned by capitalism is practically endless.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

This Julian Simon theme supplies an ideal introduction to Matt Ridley’s recent and superb Julian Simon Award Lecture.