Goklany: Wealth Protects the Environment

by David Bier on December 28, 2011

in Blog

Many people today believe that environmental conditions are worsening. In The Improving State of the World, Indur Goklany thoroughly refutes this idea. Nonetheless, environmentalists continue to perpetuate the view that increased wealth and prosperity mean a poorer environment, but as this excerpt from Goklany’s work shows, this is not the case.

The Improving State of the World was published in 2007

Clearly, technological change is one key to continued improvement in environmental and human well-being. At least two ingredients are necessary to bring about technological change. First, better technology must be brought into existence. With greater wealth, expenditures on research and development increase. Therefore, the likelihood of developing new or improved technology should rise with wealth, which helps maintain and enhance human capital. This, in turn, not only further enhances the possibility of devising better technologies but it also propagates knowledge about the existence and operation of existing and new technologies, which is a key element for the diffusion of technology.

But there is more to technological change than creating technology or being aware of its existence. Although poor countries (and their farmers) are cognizant of technologies that would improve agricultural productivity, they are unable to capitalize on that information, despite that many such technologies, for example, fertilizer and crop protection measures, are quite mundane. Thus, their agricultural yields are substantially lower as are their food supplies. As a result, hunger and malnourishment are higher, and pressures for deforestation are greater. Similarly, notwithstanding that nowadays authorities in even the poorest countries know how to extend access to safe water and sanitation to 100 percent of the population, they lack the wherewithal to do so. Consequently, 1.1 billion people worldwide still lack access to safe water and 2.4 billion to adequate sanitation, virtually all in the poorer countries.

The missing ingredient, of course, is wealth, without which not only it harder to invent, develop, perfect, and use new technologies, but even old technologies are often unaffordable. Greater wealth increases the likelihood of acquiring, operating, and maintaining new as well as existing technologies. That is, wealth not only helps create technology and conditions favorable for its diffusion but wealth also ensures that technology is, in fact, used to make technological change a reality. It is hardly surprising that in previous chapters, we saw repeatedly that virtually every indicator of human well-being or environmental impact sooner or later improves with wealth. Hence, wealth increases cereal yields, which helps reduce rates of deforestation. It boosts the ability to install air pollution controls and to substitute cleaner fuels for dirty ones. Wealth also increases access to safe water and sanitation, which then reduce mortality due to water-related diseases.

And just as wealth helps create technology and accelerates its adoption, so does technological change create wealth. Economic growth and technological progress reinforce each other in a cycle of progress, that is, they coevolve. Thus, economic growth and new technology, acting in tandem, were key to moving the richer countries toward and, in many cases, beyond their environmental transitions, which have led to long-term environmental improvements in recent decades.

(excerpted from pages 214-215)

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