Contributor Post Created with Sketch. #FirstWorldProblemsMatter

 

shutterstock_106824764In 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.

There are 19 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. The (apathetic) King Prawn Member

    If wealth creation and prosperity are the answer to the pollution problems of less developed nations, then more free enterprise, capitalism, and open markets are the solution — also contra the pope’s laments. He’s not only wrong on the environment, he’s doubly wrong when presenting solutions. Industrialization and free markets may indeed be causal, but they are also the only solution that doesn’t involve depopulation and moving back into caves.

    • #1
    • September 24, 2015, at 10:24 AM PDT
    • Like
  2. James Gawron Thatcher
    James GawronJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom,

    So you had to make me do this. Weird Al is one of Ricochet’s top guilty pleasures.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #2
    • September 24, 2015, at 10:33 AM PDT
    • Like
  3. Hammer, The Member

    Totally agree – that comment from the pope is distressing not because of the spirit in which he says it, but because it is factually incorrect. Ok, that’s one of the things I find wrong with it, but I don’t want to be the first to derail this thread. I’ll chime back in after 200 or so comments.

    Regarding your title, and the point made in your final paragraph, I find that to be something of an interesting mentality. I’ve very often felt it myself. Heck, I just sent Claire a private message that said (to paraphrase) “after a horrible 2 weeks, I am annoyed that I cannot curse in posts.” A horrible two weeks? Yeah, I had to deal with judges and attorneys and people who don’t view the world and justice the same way as I do. Sounds horrible, right? I mean, it’s not gangrene or a heart attack or ISIS beheading my entire village … but seriously, I was condescended to by an attorney who I don’t even respect all that much!

    What that does is allow us to have some perspective. It allows us to remain grateful and to feel eternally blessed in those areas where we actually are eternally blessed. But if it becomes an excuse to never problem-solve, or to wallow in guilt, then it is as much of a vanity as any of those luxuries we claim to despise. The fact is, you solve the problems you’re faced with. There is no reason not to seek to improve the connectivity of your bluetooth keyboard simply because there are larger problems elsewhere. The world simply cannot operate that way. While we rightly triage those problems that are before us, to do so on a global scale would bring the world grinding to a halt.

    • #3
    • September 24, 2015, at 10:34 AM PDT
    • Like
  4. Dave Sussman Podcaster

    Regarding EKC: Why is it accepted that because America had an almost century long learning curve to reduce carbon emissions, that China and India both should be permitted to have time to do likewise?

    We have the technology now. Their industrial revolution is not occurring in a vacuum.

    • #4
    • September 24, 2015, at 10:50 AM PDT
    • Like
  5. The Question Inactive

    I had not heard of EKC before, but that makes a lot of sense. Maybe ecological succession applies to economies too. Lichens, and later grassy, herbaceous plants creates the soil and conditions that allows a forest to grow. Likewise, maybe a dirty, early industrial period can create the necessary conditions for a cleaner post-industrial period.

    • #5
    • September 24, 2015, at 10:58 AM PDT
    • Like
  6. The Question Inactive

    David Sussman:Regarding EKC: Why is it accepted that because America had an almost century long learning curve to reduce carbon emissions, that China and India both should be permitted to have time to do likewise?

    We have the technology now. Their industrial revolution is not occurring in a vacuum.

    That brings up an interesting question. Assuming EKC is true, is it primarily about technological know how that can be disseminated by training and education? I tend to think it’s not that easy, and that China and India will have to go through their own EKCs, but that’s just a guess.

    Another wrinkle, China’s environmental problems have a lot to do with communism. Sinopec has a horrible environmental record, largely because it is an organ of the state and there are no opposing forces to curb its abuses. Having not thought about this until reading this post, I’m not sure how EKC applies to a command economy like China.

    • #6
    • September 24, 2015, at 11:07 AM PDT
    • Like
  7. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Michael Sanregret:I had not heard of EKC before, but that makes a lot of sense. Maybe ecological succession applies to economies too. Lichens, and later grassy, herbaceous plants creates the soil and conditions that allows a forest to grow. Likewise, maybe a dirty, early industrial period can create the necessary conditions for a cleaner post-industrial period.

    Oooh, I like that analogy.

    • #7
    • September 24, 2015, at 11:10 AM PDT
    • Like
  8. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    “First World” refers to America and it’s other allies in the cold war, the Second world being the Soviet Union and satellites, and the Third World was originally used to describe unaligned territories. Which is all a set up for

    Second world problems: Chernobyl.

    • #8
    • September 24, 2015, at 11:12 AM PDT
    • Like
  9. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The maddening thing about First World Problems is that the majority of complainants demand Second World Solutions.

    (Posted before I read Hank Rhody’s comment! I was being original and witty, I swear!)

    • #9
    • September 24, 2015, at 11:16 AM PDT
    • Like
  10. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Michael Sanregret: Another wrinkle, China’s environmental problems have a lot to do with communism. Sinopec has a horrible environmental record, largely because it is an organ of the state and there are no opposing forces to curb its abuses. Having not thought about this until reading this post, I’m not sure how EKC applies to a command economy like China.

    Undoubtedly, a command economy would impede the EKC but 1) China ain’t as awful as it used to be and 2) As David says, they don’t need to re-invent the wheel.

    • #10
    • September 24, 2015, at 11:24 AM PDT
    • Like
  11. Pilli Inactive

    David Sussman:Regarding EKC: Why is it accepted that because America had an almost century long learning curve to reduce carbon emissions, that China and India both should be permitted to have time to do likewise?

    We have the technology now. Their industrial revolution is not occurring in a vacuum.

    In addition to Michael Sanregret’s comment, I would add that dirtier technology is cheaper to buy than cleaner tech. The Chinese and other countries are competing in a global market where price is the only real advantage they have. Yes, you can bring up the eventual costs of dirty tech but that doesn’t get people working today.

    • #11
    • September 24, 2015, at 11:55 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. Hammer, The Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Michael Sanregret:I had not heard of EKC before, but that makes a lot of sense. Maybe ecological succession applies to economies too. Lichens, and later grassy, herbaceous plants creates the soil and conditions that allows a forest to grow. Likewise, maybe a dirty, early industrial period can create the necessary conditions for a cleaner post-industrial period.

    Oooh, I like that analogy.

    I have an economist friend who once did some research to find that child labor was actually necessary/helpful for economic development. But even common sense tells you much the same thing… I am an attorney with a solo practice and a county contract. I started out washing dishes at a sandwich restaurant. Or, in another context, I am able to play Vivaldi on my violin while my 3 y/o is still working on his Twinkle Variations.

    Same applies to the nonsense many people talk about “income inequality.” That’s fine if income is static, but the fact is, you very rarely find people (absent mental health issues, etc…) who have been entry-level burger flippers for 20 or 30 years. In reality, the greatest “income inequality” is the difference between what you made when you were first starting out, and what you make after sticking with it for years.

    • #12
    • September 24, 2015, at 12:16 PM PDT
    • Like
  13. James Gawron Thatcher
    James GawronJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom,

    Sorry for being such smart a#@ with my Weird Al video. Your post is beautifully written and very important. This is the kind of knowledge that every young American should have. We need citizens prepared to watch America succeed knowing that the success will result in the best solution for all classes and groups. The Pope needs to know this too. However, if the voters know this I’d be satisfied.

    Nice job Tom.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #13
    • September 24, 2015, at 1:11 PM PDT
    • Like
  14. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Ryan M: That’s fine if income is static, but the fact is, you very rarely find people (absent mental health issues, etc…) who have been entry-level burger flippers for 20 or 30 years.

    I actually have to quibble on that one. I’ve known quite a number of people whose careers (such as they have been) peaked early. I remember my own 16 year old stint at a Wendy’s, where the core team was a few guys in their 40’s who were, effectively, lifetime professional fast food workers (and they really were very good at it too). Now they may not have been making minimum wage, but they sure weren’t making more than $10 an hour (this was 1992). Along that same vein, my best friend’s father worked all his life as a siding installer. What he made at his career peak never exceeded $45k (and typically was in the low 30s).

    BUT (and this is key), these people were saving their earnings. Can’t speak for the burger guys after that summer, but my friend’s father was able to at least make a stable home for his kids, and his kids have done far better than their dad. The father’s economic status actually declined from his youth to his retirement, and I’ve not found that to be entirely uncommon. Took a second generation to pull ahead.

    • #14
    • September 24, 2015, at 3:33 PM PDT
    • Like
  15. James Of England Moderator
    James Of EnglandJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Pilli:

    David Sussman:Regarding EKC: Why is it accepted that because America had an almost century long learning curve to reduce carbon emissions, that China and India both should be permitted to have time to do likewise?

    We have the technology now. Their industrial revolution is not occurring in a vacuum.

    In addition to Michael Sanregret’s comment, I would add that dirtier technology is cheaper to buy than cleaner tech. The Chinese and other countries are competing in a global market where price is the only real advantage they have. Yes, you can bring up the eventual costs of dirty tech but that doesn’t get people working today.

    This isn’t really true. The IMF ranks China at 79th in the world by GDP/ capita, out of 186 countries, putting it in the global top half, richer than eight European states, more than twice as rich as some, such as Ukraine. China competes, just like everywhere else, on a basket of advantages; they have better rule of law than most of their cheaper competitors, and better infrastructure and education, for instance.

    The most impressive industrial thing I have ever seen (I went with Amy Schley) was a rebar factory some distance from Beijing, one of the world’s largest, which was responsible for both pollution and a shocking number of worker fatalities (the workers wandered around this massive and literally awesome waterfall of molten steel splashing around, and the workers were, by choice, barefoot). Shortly after we left, the plant closed, due to the pollution rather than the deaths, so I’ll never be able to show Mrs. of England. Hopefully, sufficiently good footage was taken that I’ll be able to show my kids a decent virtual reality simulation someday. The Chinese are taking steps to clean up their manufacturing, although those steps are less extreme than those taken in the West.

    • #15
    • September 24, 2015, at 11:39 PM PDT
    • Like
  16. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White MaleJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Regarding the EKC curve, it is self evident by just driving around any American city. In the prosperous parts of town, yards are well kept and streets are clean. In the poorer parts of town yards (tend to be) leas well kept, and there is more litter along the street.
    When you’re working hard to survive, you have fewer resources to put into beautification.

    • #16
    • September 25, 2015, at 7:43 AM PDT
    • Like
  17. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark WilsonJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The Environmental Kuznets Curve is a great example of moving beyond first-order thinking; that is, the idea that all consequences are one-directional. The EKC, by its nature having an inflection point, is at least a second-order effect, so it’s no surprise someone who grew up surrounded by leftist thinking doesn’t get it.

    • #17
    • September 29, 2015, at 9:56 AM PDT
    • Like
  18. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk andJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    457330_v1

    Source: http://www.cracked.com/blog/4-great-ideas-internet-ruined-by-turning-them-into-memes/

    • #18
    • September 29, 2015, at 11:07 AM PDT
    • Like
  19. Brian Skinn Inactive

    Michael Sanregret: That brings up an interesting question. Assuming EKC is true, is it primarily about technological know how that can be disseminated by training and education? I tend to think it’s not that easy, and that China and India will have to go through their own EKCs, but that’s just a guess.

    It’s absolutely not just about technological know-how: there has to be a cultural interest in improving environmental factors, too. Such cultural aspects tend to be generational: consider attitudes about, e.g., smoking in the U.S. Therefore, even if the greener technology is available, you have to have people who philosophically are interested in using it — who see the value in paying the (sometimes marginal, sometimes more substantial) costs of constraining one’s options to the more environmentally-favorable options.

    • #19
    • October 14, 2015, at 6:53 AM PDT
    • Like

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.