Bottoms up to Earth Day
IPN Critical Opinion articles
The Wikipedia entry on Earth Day tells us that in April 1970,
"Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Environment was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news. But Earth Day 1970 turned that all around."
Unsurprisingly, the entry is flagged with the warning: “the neutrality of this article is disputed.” Perhaps that’s because Americans are still driving massive V8 cars — though admittedly many are SUVs and tetraethyl lead is no longer a permissible additive in fuels. More likely it is because Earth Day 1970 had almost nothing to do with the environmental clean-up of the United States.
Levels of lead in the blood of Americans had been falling for decades prior to 1970, even as atmospheric emissions of lead monoxide were increasing. The reason: most lead had been ingested from water, contaminated by the pipes carrying it, which have gradually been replaced with copper and plastic.
But in spite of the harm done by the lead in pipes, they arguably represented an improvement over the previous situation. By enabling water to be transmitted from source to home, lead pipes dramatically reduced levels of deadly bacterial contamination, saving millions of lives. Likewise the introduction of chlorine treatment. Yes, that’s right, the chemical so loathed by the modern environmental elite actually saved — and saves — lives.
Oh, and another chemical so loathed by environmentalists, DDT, also happens to have saved hundreds of millions of people — by killing malarial mosquitoes. It would have saved many more, had the environmentalists not sought to ban it from the face of the earth. Fortunately, their efforts failed at the last hurdle and DDT is once again recognized as an important weapon in the fight against malaria. Nevertheless, poverty and technological backwardness mean that over a million people still die from this preventable disease each year.
Worse, about 2 billion of Earth’s human inhabitants lack access to clean, piped water. That is a major reason why, according to various estimates, around 2 million people — mainly babies and small children — die from cholera, dysentery, and other water-borne diseases each year. Meanwhile, another million and a half or so people — mostly women and children — die from the effects of burning dung and wood in poorly flued cooking fires.
These are the real environmental tragedies our planet now faces. Yet they are largely ignored — or even made worse — by an environmentalist elite whose “solution” to the energy problems of the third world is “renewables.” Discounting the obvious — that wood and dung are as “renewable” as they are deadly — it is arrogant in the extreme to promote wind and solar power. Not only are these far more expensive than natural gas and distributed electricity, making them impracticable for processing and pumping water, they are of little use as a means of cooking the evening meal and heating the home, since wind is erratic and the sun doesn’t shine at night.
Meanwhile, the idea that concern over pollution began in 1970 is as preposterous as it is bizarre. Greek and Roman law contained provisions intended to prevent harms arising from certain forms of land use. Meanwhile, the English common law had by the 13th century begun to address disputes of an environmental nature, such as damage arising from the keeping of water on land.
By the 17th century, the obligation to use one’s property in ways that did not harm others’ was clearly enshrined in law and case after case was won by landowners defending themselves against emitters of noxious pollution. But the common law was not perfect: it was expensive and often difficult to prove that harm had been done. Worse, governments sought to intervene on behalf of polluters, creating statutory rights to pollute “for the public good” — and although this was in direct contradiction of the common law, judges were bound by the statutes.
Government “solutions” to environmental problems go back a long way too. In 1306 by King Edward I banned the burning of bituminous “sea coal” in London. But with wood in increasingly short supply and coal plentiful and cheap, the ban had little effect, except perhaps as a means of enabling Edward’s officers to extract bribes in return for agreeing not to torture those who burnt coal.
With current technologies, coal remains the most plentiful and inexpensive source of energy on the planet. So it is not surprising that — like the medieval Brits — the Chinese, Indians, South Africans, and others are reluctant to restrict its use. To do so would drive up the cost of energy, reducing the pace of economic growth, and so perpetuating poverty and ill health for hundreds of millions of people.
Elitist environmentalists think only of grandiose top-down solutions that are as short-sighted as they are simplistic. For years, they talked up biofuels as a means of reducing carbon emissions and oil imports, yet the reality is that they do neither — but they do contribute to rising food costs for the poor.
Technological progress has improved the lot of billions of people, making the world a cleaner, greener place. Given the chance, it can benefit everyone. But this can only happen if people are empowered to make decisions — because technological progress and environmental improvement occurs from the bottom up, not the top down.