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Hard, Clean Roofs: Cleaned by Capitalism

Below is the original version of a letter of mine that will appear, in shortened form, in tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review:

Dear Editor:

Reviewing Falter, Jared Diamond gently scolds its author, Bill McKibben, for writing in a manner unconvincing to those who don’t already agree with McKibben (and Diamond) that humanity faces an existential environmental crisis (“Striking a Balance Between Fear and Hope on Climate Change,” April 21).

As someone who doesn’t believe that any such crisis looms, I here offer advice for how environmentalists can make themselves more convincing: stop focusing only on capitalism’s environmental costs and acknowledge its many environmental benefits.

Consider the anxiety suffered by Diamond and McKibben over asphalt roof shingles. According to Diamond, “McKibben explains how their manufacture and distribution depend on multiple big systems – undersea and desert oil drilling, limestone and sand mining, fiberglass fabrication, pipelines, refineries, rail lines, truck routes, building supply stores, etc. – all now at increasing risk because of their scale, complexity and susceptibility to disruption.”

Forget that this product has been used for over a century without any disruption. Instead recognize that the low price of asphalt shingles helps to ensure that nearly all people in capitalist economies have hard roofs over their heads. Before the industrial age, hard roofs were a luxury; much more common were thatched roofs – which posed immediate environmental hazards to those living beneath them. Here are historians Frances and Joseph Gies writing about life in Europe before the industrial revolution:

“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.”*

It would be refreshing if, for once, environmentalists such as Diamond and McKibben acknowledged this and the many other ways that industrialization makes everyday human life cleaner and safer.

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

Life in a Medieval Village (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), p. 34.