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Capitalism Makes You Cleaner

The underrated environmental qualities of the Kuznets Curve

One of the most rightly celebrated books of the early environmental movement was New Yorker writer John McPhee's 1971 page-turner, Encounters with the Archdruid. The quasi-religious figure referenced in the title was naturalist legend David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and founder of a half-dozen other environmentalist organizations, including Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters.

McPhee's concept was elegantly simple: Send Brower out into environmental no-man's lands with his antagonists—a mining magnate in the Glacier Peak Wilderness area, a golf-loving real estate developer on Georgia's Cumberland Island, and United States Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy on the Colorado River, which Dominy had recently helped disfigure with the Glen Canyon Dam. Brower was a larger-than-life figure, by turns prickly and pragmatic, conversational and condemnatory; yet his opponents on these trips also viewed themselves as responsible stewards of Mother Nature, and the ensuing repartee is a fascinating collision between mid-century faith in engineering progress and the first stirrings of a more pessimistic countercultural backlash.

Yet the anecdote from the book that sticks out most to contemporary eyes is a literal throwaway line about McPhee himself. Brower, Dominy, and the author are floating down the Colorado, opening up cans of beer in the hot sun. "They put the aluminum tongues inside the cans," McPhee writes. (For those of you under 35, these were the bits that you had to rip off a can in order to get at the deliciousness within.) "I threw a tongue in the river and was booed by everyone."

Here was the man widely considered to be the best long-form environmental journalist of the past 50 years, just hucking trash into an endangered river under the watchful eyes of the 20th century's leading Friend of the Earth. An act that seems almost deliberately shocking to our modern sensibilities—like the scene in the first season of Mad Men, in which the Draper family ditches the detritus of a lovely picnic lunch onto a grassy knoll—was presented in 1971 more as a commentary on the extreme pieties of oversensitive nature lovers. Unwittingly, this passage might be the best literary rendering of a concept too little understood in our sky-is-falling culture: the environmental Kuznets Curve.

In the 1950s, the Belarussian-born American economist Simon Kuznets hypothesized that income inequality as a nation industrializes can be shaped like an inverted U—it increases in the early stages of growth, reaches an apex, and then starts tapering down as the economy matures. The switch begins to happen after a critical mass of people abandon farm life for the big cities, where they obtain better education, benefit from economies of scale, and start agitating for policy changes.

Ironically, at a time when Kuznets' original concept has come under intensified attack in the inequality-obsessed developed world, its application to the environment has gained considerable purchase both academically and observationally. As Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey traces in "The End of Doom" (page 20), many of the woes that people still assume are getting worse are actually improving in the most advanced countries.

The richest nations are reforesting, not deforesting; cleaning up rivers and skies instead of making them dirtier; beating back cancer instead of contributing to its increase. As women get wealthier they gobble up educational opportunities and gain control over their own reproduction, to the point where the fertility rate of Mexican women will soon plummet to replacement level. Some nostalgiacs may lament the disappearance of the family farm, but the swapping out of subsistence agriculture for city life is a net plus for the environment and a net boon for the participating migrants.

Some of the virtuous Kuznets action in the rich world can be attributed to sheer technological progress. Cutting-edge technology, from agribusiness to apps, always seeks to produce more output with less input. Other advancements can come from the types of regulations that an increasingly wealthy populace demands—a desire to see the mountains in Southern California leads to the prohibition of leaded gasoline, for example.

But arguably the most important change is the one hardest to measure: that which occurs first within the human heart, then in behavior. If you look around at the world, and even at your own life, you will see examples of the Kuznets Curve all around you.

The most widespread practice of self-pollution—cigarette smoking—is down all over the developed world (while rising in industrializing countries such as China and India). A quarter-century ago, being in a bar almost anywhere on the globe meant stinging eyeballs and reeking clothes; now you can't even smoke in a bar in Paris or Prague. (Save for the moment your objection to any given government policy—I am enough of a hard-ass about smoking bans to have once led a protest against one—and instead concentrate on observable environmental and health improvements.)

When I first visited Italy in 1990, there wasn't a single beach that didn't feature a tide line speckled with tossed cigarettes and abandoned Fanta bottles. Strolling on Italian beaches in the summer of 2015, I saw nothing of the sort. In 1997, I shuddered with horror as an acquaintance of mine—a member of the Macedonian Green Party, no less—blithely tossed out of our car window an empty battery package into an ecological reserve. Nearly two decades of comparative prosperity later, I'm confident she would do nothing of the sort. We no longer need public service announcements with faux Indians crying at the sight of roadside litter; now we all cry, or at least most of us above the poverty line in the West.

In the twilight struggle over environmental policy, combatants on either side often become almost monomaniacally obsessed with the affiliation and presumed evil intent of their opponents. For many in the free market camp, new greens are just old reds, seeking to squeeze down the private means of production by the only politically viable mechanism left. Buttressing their argument are actual former Communists such as Mikhail Gorbachev transitioning without missing a beat to environmental advocacy, despite the brutally poisonous track record of really existing socialism; or the quick shift by the Naomi Kleins of the world from anti-globalization to anti–global warming.

For many on the environmentalism-advocacy side, those resisting this or that government regulation are doing so not out of principle, but from a mixture of know-nothingism, greed, and occasionally even an active desire to make the planet filthier. It's all a "race to the bottom," as demonstrated by whatever corporation-inflicted environmental catastrophe is making headlines this month. At the heart of this defilement is an original sin of man elevating himself to the top of the resource food chain. As David Brower himself once said, "Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us."

But both sides may be missing the (renewed) forest for the trees. Yes, there will be, and should be, constant battles over the role and scope of government, as well as over the role and scope of industry. Concentrated power of any size seeks to acquire more of the stuff, fend off shackles, and suppress competition; the world is pockmarked with the deleterious results, including within walking distance of my Brooklyn home a canal so toxic that any large sea creature dies within hours of mistakenly swimming into it.

But moving the periscope back reveals a long-term trend toward environmental cleanliness everywhere that capitalism has been allowed to flourish at length, whether it be in democratic socialist France or the allegedly laissez faire United States. We all get there, as long as we don't totally murder the goose that laid these golden eggs.

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  • ||

    "...just hucking trash into an endangered river under the watchful eyes of the 20th century's leading Friend of the Earth. An act that seems almost deliberately shocking to our modern sensibilities..."

    Yes, shocking to sensibilities but not to the environment. It is a small bit of aluminum for Christ's sake. It will oxidize and become sand. The vast majority of litter is paper and plastic. Paper is wood fiber and the sun will degrade the plastic into harmless dust. The next largest constituent is glass which is nothing more than sand. While our sensibilities may be offended by signs of the previous presence of humans this stuff really doesn't hurt anything in the environment.

    Having said that I will point out that I have had my feet cut by broken bottles lying on the bottoms of various places I have swam in. Leaving glass in a place where people frequent is irresponsible and dangerous. Leaving other trash is just plain lazy and inconsiderate. Still, it doesn't rate Injun tears.

    I think the reason we find it offensive is that human detritus tells us we are not the first ones there, and you know, other humans are a blight on the earth.

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    No shit, that is the whole point. Littering (as opposed to pollution) is not about protecting the environment from damage, but about protecting the natural beauty of the place for human enjoyment. Thus, it is ultimately about people and what they value. One aluminum tab might not seem like a big deal, but if everyone threw theirs in the river, we would be staring at a littered beach that takes away from everyone's enjoyment.

  • gaoxiaen||

    They're shiny like a fishing lure. Fish eat them and die.

  • ||

    "...just hucking trash into an endangered river under the watchful eyes of the 20th century's leading Friend of the Earth. An act that seems almost deliberately shocking to our modern sensibilities..."

    Yes, shocking to sensibilities but not to the environment. It is a small bit of aluminum for Christ's sake. It will oxidize and become sand. The vast majority of litter is paper and plastic. Paper is wood fiber and the sun will degrade the plastic into harmless dust. The next largest constituent is glass which is nothing more than sand. While our sensibilities may be offended by signs of the previous presence of humans this stuff really doesn't hurt anything in the environment.

    Having said that I will point out that I have had my feet cut by broken bottles lying on the bottoms of various places I have swam in. Leaving glass in a place where people frequent is irresponsible and dangerous. Leaving other trash is just plain lazy and inconsiderate. Still, it doesn't rate Injun tears.

    I think the reason we find it offensive is that human detritus tells us we are not the first ones there, and you know, other humans are a blight on the earth.

  • ||

    "...just hucking trash into an endangered river under the watchful eyes of the 20th century's leading Friend of the Earth. An act that seems almost deliberately shocking to our modern sensibilities..."

    Yes, shocking to sensibilities but not to the environment. It is a small bit of aluminum for Christ's sake. It will oxidize and become sand. The vast majority of litter is paper and plastic. Paper is wood fiber and the sun will degrade the plastic into harmless dust. The next largest constituent is glass which is nothing more than sand. While our sensibilities may be offended by signs of the previous presence of humans this stuff really doesn't hurt anything in the environment.

    Having said that I will point out that I have had my feet cut by broken bottles lying on the bottoms of various places I have swam in. Leaving glass in a place where people frequent is irresponsible and dangerous. Leaving other trash is just plain lazy and inconsiderate. Still, it doesn't rate Injun tears.

    I think the reason we find it offensive is that human detritus tells us we are not the first ones there, and you know, other humans are a blight on the earth.

  • Entropy Drehmaschine Void||

    Squirrels hate the environment.

  • ||

    +1 Chewed soffit

  • DenverJ||

    Mostly right. But plastic can mimic estrogen, and cause problems in fish populations, and in the animals who done on fish.
    Also, you know who else hated squirrels?

  • Kivlor||

    Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale?

  • Akira||

    Me, when they come into my yard and eat the tomatoes off the plants?

  • Amigo||

    Both of my dogs also hate squirrels.

  • Brian||

    Yes, but, there's still pollution.

    It's not perfect. Start worker's revolution!

  • Loki||

    Buttressing their argument are actual former Communists such as Mikhail Gorbachev transitioning without missing a beat to environmental advocacy, despite the brutally poisonous track record of really existing socialism; or the quick shift by the Naomi Kleins of the world from anti-globalization to anti–global warming.

    I've always found it "interesting" that the watermelons claim to be environmentalists while simultaneously embracing a governing ideology responsible for some of the worst environmental records in history.

    If I didn't know better I'd think maybe they're either retards with a massive case of cognitive dissonance or dishonest shitheads using faux environmentalism to push communism. /sarc

  • JWatts||

    "If I didn't know better I'd think maybe they're either retards with a massive case of cognitive dissonance or dishonest shitheads using faux environmentalism to push communism."

    That's a False dichotomy, you should never leave out the "and".

  • Sevo||

    And in CA, we're banning micro beads since they're here, they contain chemakulz and we can:
    "Millions of plastic particles polluting San Francisco Bay"
    [...]
    "San Francisco Bay is hundreds of times more contaminated than the Great Lakes with small plastic particles from cosmetics and synthetic clothing, a new study has found."
    http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/.....524786.php

    Yep, a thousand times zero is a pretty big number, right?
    No where in the article will you find a shred of evidence that the things actually cause harm.

  • GroundTruth||

    No where in the article will you find a shred of evidence that the things actually cause harm. It's manmade, therefore it's bad. If it were natural, it would be good - like botulism or poison ivy.

  • mtrueman||

    PCBs are toxic. That's the sort of chemical that can be found in these particles. Don't let that stop you from enjoying fish from SF bay.

  • GroundTruth||

    Sorry you missed the sarcasm. Not suggesting that every man made compound is fine and dandy, but not every one is the end of life as we know it either.

    As for PCB's, I'd also pass on the mussels from New Bedford harbor - they're loaded (I know, I've done the analyses).

  • gaoxiaen||

    I used to fish in the Ohio River downstream from Pittsburgh, but never ate the fish. People told me it was okay to eat them once a week. I let them go or gave them away.

  • Sevo||

    mtrueman|9.24.15 @ 1:48PM|#
    "PCBs are toxic. That's the sort of chemical that can be found in these particles. Don't let that stop you from enjoying fish from SF bay."

    Trueman is a lying POS.

  • Suellington||

    PCB's are not in plastics you lying socialist fucktard.

  • Sevo||

    Well, I was gonna ask for a cite, but then trueman never bothers since it's hard to find believable cites for his lies.
    And I'm sure he'll be back pointing to the lie about 'the sort' of CHEMIKULZ!

  • Suellington||

    PCB's have also not been used in the United States since the late 1970's. So, while there are surely PCB's in SF Bay, they are there due to long past industry that had nothing to do with plastics. Not that it matters to the shitheel that was just defending the Khmer Rouge the other day.

  • mtrueman||

    Read the article. Otherwise you are wasting time.

    It was basically Brian who was extolling the intelligence and competence of the KR. I insisted they were incompetent idiots. That's what you call defending the KR.

  • Sevo||

    mtrueman|9.24.15 @ 11:54PM|#
    "Read the article."

    What article, shitbag?
    Get lost.

  • mtrueman||

    What article, shitbag?

    What's your first guess?

    Question: You for or against CA state senate's moves against the cosmetics industry? My guess is you side with the cosmetics people.

  • Millard Fillmore||

    And more importantly, he sides with the people who CHOOSE TO BUY THE COSMETICS BECAUSE THEY ENJOY THEM. He beleived in "freedom" or something, fucking bastard.

  • Brian||

    But, in the end you agreed with me: The KR were hypocrites who intentionally starved their own people, even though "goal: mass starvation" wasn't a part of their documented plans.

    Sigh. You were doing so well, considering.

    Sometimes, growth looks like two steps forward, two steps back.

  • mtrueman||

    "a long-term trend toward environmental cleanliness everywhere that capitalism has been allowed to flourish at length"

    Ignore the soaring rates of asthma and diabetes. The only people who suffer from these are the poor and those who have failed to embrace the spirit of capitalism. Forget about all that. Let's keep our priorities straight. A large sea creature may die in a canal near the author's house.

  • Bob Armstrong||

    So what's your hypothesis for the cause ?
    Other than fat .

  • mtrueman||

    "So what's your hypothesis for the cause ?"

    The causes of both these diseases are unknown. That shouldn't surprise you. Who cares about the cause of a disease that only effects losers anyway.

    If you want a hypothesis, though, aside from fat, we might look to sedentary life style, environmental pollution etc. Conditions typically found in capitalist societies.

  • Suellington||

    Eating a high starch and high sugar diet combined with a sedentary lifestyle are the major contributors to adult onset diabetes. Yes, we know in your socialist utopia that you would have people living on the allotted rations that would have the wonderful benefit of them not getting fat. With the forced worker cooperatives they wouldn't have that sedentary life of ease as well. Presto! You just solved the problem!

  • mtrueman||

    "Yes, we know in your socialist utopia..."

    Laugh while you can, monkey boy.

  • Sevo||

    mtrueman|9.24.15 @ 11:56PM|#
    "Laugh while you can, monkey boy."

    Make an ass of yourself as you will, shitbag.
    Please tell us when the rapture is to happen!

  • mtrueman||

    Jesus wept.

  • Sevo||

    Trueman is also a cherry-picking POS.

  • Lorenzo Valla||

    before capitalism: lots of people walking around in shit

    with capitalism: less and less people walking around in shit

    we can afford it and so we have a cleaner world.

  • Wesley Mouch||

    It's a simple fact that rich countries are clean and poor countries are dirty and polluted. It takes a certain level of affluence before people give a shit about what they live in. Wealth is directly correlated to economic development.

  • bacon-magic||

    The actor who played the crying Injun was not even an Injun...

  • Brian||

    I heard that he also wasn't really crying, either.

  • Brian||

    Capitalism's done more for the environment than socialism ever has.

  • Warren||

    like the scene in the first season of Mad Men, in which the Draper family ditches the detritus of a lovely picnic lunch onto a grassy knoll

    That was in the second season dufus.

  • IMissLiberty||

    It's hard to save the trees when you're cold.

  • Nosea||

    Good observations, we are after all constantly evolving. Cause and effect aren't always foreseeable to the naked eye . Perceptions and even our educated understanding of issues will always be altered by numerous variables the obvious dominating force being time. If you knew then what you know now, isn't always a clear, straightforward choice. If you went back in time and altered things, we might not be at the place we are now. It was after the mudslide that we realized we shouldn't have cut down all the trees.

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  • Hank Phillips||

    Capitalism is an neologism bandied about a century ago to mean low-tariff mercantilism. Today we would recognize the referent as a heavily-mixed economy. Bastiat never defined a political state, and the first useful definition of government wasn't coined until 1914. The non-aggression principle had to await its formulation until 1947, during the Nurenberg trials and denazification process. It is ironic that the formulator--perhaps convinced by the Goldwater nomination that the GOP was OK--explicitly badmouthed the term "libertarian". Adding an American-sounding modifier might help rehabilitate the term. You'd think "libertarian capitalist" would be less likely to conjure up visions of bomb-throwing anarchists or prohibitionist machine politicians. The internet has been heavily seeded with websites to sell precisely those images. Clearly, someone out there is frightened the construct might have positive connotations and voter appeal.

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