There is a theoretical relationship between a nation’s wealth and the amount of pollution it emits.
Because a poor country has little manufacturing and few power plants, pollution is low. As the nation develops, perhaps by burning fossil fuels to produce electricity and operating manufacturing facilities to generate exports, it becomes wealthier. At the same time, however, it pollutes more than it ever has before.
Eventually, as the country becomes even wealthier, the people demand a cleaner environment. What was once a luxury (clean air and pure water) is demanded as a right. As a result, new regulations are enforced, cleaner technologies are implemented, and pollution decreases.
This pattern, known as the environmental Kuznets curve, was certainly true for the United States. The Industrial Revolution simultaneously created much wealth while poisoning our air and water. Citizens demanded reforms, and with the help of institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency, our lands were made pure again. Indeed, today, the United States has some of the cleanest air in the entire world.
Source: World Health Organization
The link between technological progress and a decrease in air pollution was further underscored in a presentation by Harvard scientist Steven Pinker at the recent Breakthrough Dialogue*. In a beautiful graph, Dr. Pinker showed that, from 1970 to 2015 in the United States, GDP, vehicle-miles traveled, and population all increased, while the emission of five different air pollutants decreased.
The amount of energy Americans consumed increased, but not by nearly as much as GDP or vehicle-miles traveled. And while our carbon dioxide emissions increased, they began to decrease in the mid-2000s.
All of this serves to highlight a very important point: We should encourage economic and technological development everywhere in the world. Of course, we should specifically support the use of clean technology where possible, but that won’t always be a viable option. Some countries are so desperate, that they would be willing to do anything to escape poverty.
The good news is that, over time, wealth makes people desire a clean environment. That’s why environmentalists, if they are to be successful, must be pro-human at heart.
*Note: The Breakthrough Dialogue paid for my travel and lodging.