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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “The case for neglecting global warming”

In my August 13th, 2006, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I made a case against enlisting government to combat global warming. You can read my case in full beneath the fold.

The case for neglecting global warming

In the July 30 edition of The New York Times, Gina Kolata reports on recent research findings on the health of modern citizens of industrialized countries. You might expect that this research reveals us denizens of early 21st-century capitalist economies to be staggeringly unhealthy — our physiques so obese and flabby, our arteries so clogged with cholesterol, our lungs so inundated with pollutants and our brains and spirits so burdened with stress that we are aging faster and suffering more than ever before.

In fact, the opposite is true. The great majority of us today enjoy unprecedented good health. According to The Times:

New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.

The difference does not involve changes in genes, as far as is known, but changes in the human form. It shows up in several ways, from those that are well known and almost taken for granted, like greater heights and longer lives, to ones that are emerging only from comparisons of health records.

The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today.

The closest this long report comes to offering up bad news is to acknowledge that some experts believe that today’s childhood obesity will eventually negate, or seriously subtract from, these remarkable health gains. But this prediction seems silly in light of the colossal, documented health gains that people in the West have enjoyed over the past five or six generations.

And although The Times’ report avoids firmly answering the question “why?,” the reason for this much-improved health isn’t hard to find given that these health gains have been greatest in the industrialized world and that they started within the past two centuries.

The answer, in a word, is “capitalism.”

Capitalism produces so much food that we are never malnourished; it produces ample clothing and sturdy homes to protect us from the elements; it produces the soaps, shampoos, toothpastes and detergents that we use every day to cleanse our bodies and living spaces of bacteria and other dirt. And by continually substituting machines for human labor, capitalism progressively makes our work less backbreaking and less perilous.

These gains are significant and real. And they are continuing; no one knows where, or even if, they will stop.

Those of us who recognize these important benefits of capitalism — those of us who understand that capitalism’s true greatness lies not (as many critics insinuate) in producing oceans of pointless trinkets and baubles but in making the lives of ordinary people richer and fuller and longer — are reluctant to yield power to governments to tackle global warming. We worry that this power will kill the goose that’s laying this golden egg.

If you think that such a worry is exaggerated, recall the language Al Gore used in his book “Earth in the Balance.” The former Vice President asserted that we are suffering an “environmental crisis” that can be avoided only if we “drastically change our civilization and our way of thinking.”

“Drastically change our civilization.” Hmmm. This sounds like a call to significantly scale back markets, trade and industrial activities in order to lessen humankind’s “footprint” on the Earth and its environment. We can, no doubt, make our environmental footprint smaller — but how great a benefit will this achievement be if it returns us to the ages-old condition of high mortality and morbidity?

Undoubtedly, most people who seek government action to fight global warming are “reasonable.” They envision no drastic changes to our civilization. And I concede that, in principle, cost-effective steps to reduce global warming are possible. But I’m sure that it’s also true that most of the “reasonable” people who demand action against global warming are unaware of the critical role that capitalism plays in improving the lives of ordinary men and women.

So given this fact along with the hysterical language used by the likes of Al Gore — who, after all, is not on society’s fringes — it’s a perfectly legitimate stance for truly reasonable people to conclude that the best policy regarding global warming is to neglect it — and let capitalism continue to make us healthier and wealthier.