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In the most literal sense, the Industrial Revolution was dirty business. Never before in our planet’s history had man done as much damage to the land, the air, and the waters as when we first acquired powered machines. In search of energy, forests were torn down, peat bogs were ripped up, and coal was extracted and burned in ways that we’d find repulsive today.
Though that point is often presented as an ipso facto condemnation of the Industrial Revolution, that’s not the only possible interpretation. Perhaps, as unhealthy and disgusting as that era was, the costs were worth the gains. The very same processes that polluted the Earth also brought goods and services to millions that, only years before, had been available only to the wealthy few (if at all).
Given that the Industrial Revolution began and grew in one of the freest societies to have graced the planet, we might conclude that the British understood the trade-offs and accepted them. Indeed, despite the the smog clouds and drudgery they offered, cities and industrial mills attracted people like never before, and apparently with good reason: despite all the shortcomings those places offered in terms of health and welfare, life expectancy and purchasing power soared. Simply put, the costs of breathing smog outside were worth the benefits of burning coal inside.
But even as wealth and industrialization spread and accelerated, the negative side effects have not; indeed, they’ve actually reversed in some cases. If you’ll forgive yet another reference to Ron Bailey’s The End of Doom, consider that:
[T]he EPA reports that between 1980 and 2011, US gross domestic product increased 128 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased 94 percent, energy consumption increased 26 percent, and the US population grew by 37 percent. During the same time period, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 63 percent …
[The correlation between post-industrialization increased wealth and increased cleanliness] has been dubbed the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC). The Environmental Kuznets Curve hypothesis posits that environmental conditions initially deteriorate as economic growth takes off, but later improve when citizens with rising incomes demand better quality environmental amenities.
In other words, once Americans (and people in similarly-developed nations) reached a certain level of material prosperity and security, they were able to afford to care about the environment in a way their grandfathers could not. Consider just the places I’ve lived in the past decade: you can now see mountains in the Los Angeles Basin that were regularly obscured by smog a generation ago and Boston’s harbor, seashore, and rivers are all vastly cleaner and safer than they’ve been in centuries — despite those places becoming richer and more heavily populated. That the means of achieving these results has often (and imperfectly) taken the form of government mandates and regulations in no way undermines the thesis that people choose to be green once its within their means.
This is, sadly, a point that seems lost on Pope Francis who wrote in Laudato Si’ (¶ 21) that:
Account must also be taken of the pollution produced by residue, including dangerous waste present in different areas. Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.
To the extent this is true, it’s happening overwhelmingly in places like India, China, and Africa that are further back on the Environmental Kuznets Curve. If the EKC is accurate — as I very strongly suspect it is — there’s every reason to expect that, as these societies become richer, their future citizens will have the luxury of caring about the environment as we do. Given the pace of economic development in many of these countries, and the general (albeit, slower) trend away from despotism, this will likely take them decades rather than centuries.
We often regard “First World Problems” as inherently frivolous: the web editor who gets annoyed when he finds that his new Bluetooth keyboard — purchased for the price of a half-morning’s work and delivered to his door in less than 48 hours — doesn’t pair perfectly with his new iPad. But if Bailey is right about the relationship between wealth and environmental stewardship, not all concerns unique to the developed world are so trivial.