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A Greater Threat

Here’s a letter to Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz:

Prof. Ledewitz:

Thanks much for your e-mail in response to my letter in today’s New York Times Book Review.

Your key paragraph is this one:

But it is your larger point about the lack of existential crisis I don’t understand. I have seen maps that show that rising sea levels eventually flood large portions of Florida. That seems to me to represent a catastrophe that cannot be mitigated–the same with predictions that humans might eventually have to leave the southwest U.S.  Harms like that have to be prevented at all costs, if they can be, no? Obviously, there is something here that you deny, but I don’t know what it is.

It’s not so much what I deny as what too many other people ignore. Too many people ignore the fact that we humans have long coped with crises, including resource depletion and climate change (such as the arrival in the 13th century of the little ice age and its passing in the 19th). And for the past two-hundred or so years, especially in market-oriented societies, our capacity to protect ourselves from the many dangers that nature inflicts on us has been stupendous – so much so that we take for granted today the countless ways that markets cleanse our environment.

By our current standards, most of these ways are mundane. They include electric lighting and stoves that reduce the particulate matter in our homes; inexpensive indoor plumbing, soap, refrigeration, and canning – and antibiotics – that protect us from bacteria that once mowed down our ancestors in great numbers; and internal-combustion engines the emissions of which do not foul our streets and walkways as did the maggot-attracting emissions of horses and other draught animals.

The point of my letter is to draw attention to the countless ways, almost all overlooked, in which our environment is cleaned by capitalism. And so when you write that threats of the sort that you highlight “have to be prevented at all costs,” recognize that among those costs is the potential destruction of the global system of commerce and industry that has made our lives today cleaner and safer than they’ve ever before been.

I worry, very much, that failure to recognize the many ways that capitalism cleanses our environment will lead us to pay a price far too high in our attempt to mitigate some other ways in which capitalism damages our environment.

Put differently, I fear that a far more likely existential crisis confronts us from the severe restrictions on capitalist innovation and reach – restrictions of the sort advocated by Bill McKibben – than from rising sea levels.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


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