Julian Simon: The Peculiar Theory of Pollution

by David Bier on December 5, 2011

in Blog

In this excerpt from The Ultimate Resource 2, brilliant resource economist Julian Simon explains why environmental degradation is not a continuous process. Rather, he demonstrates why prosperity protects the environment.

On April 19, 1970, at the time of the first Earth Day demonstrations, the top-of-page headline story in the Chicago Tribune was “The Pollution of Earth: ‘I’m Scared,'” with the subheadline “Air, Sea and Land–All Being Strangled.”  The story was typical of headlines all across the country: “‘I’m scared,’ said Joseph Sauris, 16, a sophomore at Maine East Township High School, Park Ridge…. ‘I don’t like the idea of leaving a dead world to my children.  That might sound like a cliche, but it may be the truth someday.’”

Today, a quarter-century later, people still believe that the earth is being strangled.  But what are these deadly substances that are supposedly killing the planet?  Almost without exception, the purported pollutions that have most scared the public in the past few decades – Alar, dioxin, acid rain, and a large number of others ranging back to DDT – have turned out to be destructive false alarms.  Yet the alarms have been much louder than the later all-clears; this contributes to the public’s impression that pollution is becoming worse rather than improving.

The worst pollutions of the past were diseases caused by microorganisms, and spread by contaminated drinking water and by airborne germs and insects…. Pollution used to mean such phenomena as human excrement floating in rivers everywhere, as it still does in India and Thailand (and I’m sure many other countries), and as it did in the Hudson River off Manhattan when I was a young man.  When I was in the Navy in the 1950s, there were few harbors in the world that were not completely foul, and it was always disgusting to see native kids diving into that mess to fetch the coins the sailors and tourists would throw near the docks for amusement.

In the rich countries we have been so successful in sanitary operations and preventive medicine that infectious diseases are no longer even thought of when pollution is discussed, though in poor countries these diseases still are mass killers…

Economic theory views natural resources and pollution as the opposite sides of the same coin. For example, sooty air is undesired pollution; it may also be thought of as the absence of a desired resource, pure air.

The economic theory of resources therefore applies to pollution as well.  If the resource in question – pure air – seems to be getting scarcer, that’s a sign that society has been using the resource to get richer.  And rich societies have more options (as well as more knowledge) for cleaning the air than poor societies.  They can install scrubbers in smokestacks, switch to alternative sources of energy, hire researchers to improve technology, and so on.  In short, the perceived scarcity of this resource – pure air – generates a public clamor and then economic activity that creates more of the resource than was originally “used up.”

The principle behind the long-run increase in our supply of pure air (or any other environmental good) is the same as with minerals, farmland, forests, energy, and other resources… The “peculiar” theory of diminishing pollution is peculiar only because it runs counter to the prevailing opinion.  At first, it seems like common sense to assume that pollution is the inevitable consequence of economic growth.  But if we think the problem through, we should expect to see pure air, clean water, and healthier environments in general become less and less “scarce,” or easier to obtain, just as raw materials, food, energy, and other resources have become easier and easier to obtain.  Our environment should become more and more suitable for human habitation – with no meaningful limit on making it cleaner.

Studies of European countries confirm the theory that increased income brings about decreased pollution.

(Excerpted from Chapter 18, pages 223-225)

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