Tag: Earth Day

It Takes Green to Make the Planet Greener

On Earth Day, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that planetary stewardship and affluence go hand-in-hand around the world. At the national level, the world’s poorest nations are environmental disasters, while the most affluent—the United States and Australia come to mind—are among the cleanest and most efficient.

We weren’t always this way. In the 1950s, the air in Pittsburgh resembled that of modern Beijing, where the rush for economic development demanded by the populace trumps air quality—for the time being. When a certain level of affluence is reached, as is beginning to occur in Beijing, people will be willing to pay to clean things up. 

In the United States, the scrubbing of Pittsburgh was just the beginning, followed by tighter regulation of water quality, increasing affluence and (“The Population Bomb” notwithstanding) a major drop in resident fecundity. Free Europe, a bit behind us economically, followed about ten years later. When they have the green, people get green.

Why Are Environmental Policy Conflicts So Intractable?

On Earth Day the op-ed pages remind me of “Groundhog Day.”  Environmentalists argue we need stricter environmental regulation.  Business interests argue such regulations reduce economic growth and cost the economy jobs.  Each also invokes “sound science” as an adjudicator of the conflict.  Environmentalists invoke “science” in the case of CO2 emissions and effects while business interests invoke “science” in the case of traditional pollution emissions.  Each year we wake up and the same movie plays out.

The scientific validity of people’s preferences plays no role in the market’s delivery of private goods.  Markets can and do supply organic lettuce regardless of whether it is really “better” for your health.  The scientific validity of people’s preferences is irrelevant.

Air- and water-quality environmental disputes are more challenging to analyze than the supply of organic lettuce for two reasons.  First, while property rights exist for lettuce, they often do not exist for air and water.   Thus, environmental politics involves continuous struggle over implicit property rights and the wealth effects that flow from such rights.  Second, both conventional air and water quality are “local” public goods (club goods) rather than private goods, thus individual differences in consumption, the primary method of reducing conflict associated with private goods, are not possible.  Instead, everyone’s varied preferences for environmental goods can only result in one jointly consumed outcome.

One possible impediment to the implementation of market-like solutions to air and water quality is that the initial ownership of property rights to air or water emissions not only has wealth but also efficiency effects.  That is those particular property rights (the right to a pristine environment) are so valuable relative to other assets that their initial allocation alters the willingness of people to pay for them and thus affects how much pollution exists.  In such cases the initial distribution is the whole ballgame because it determines the resulting air- and water- quality levels.

Return of the Neo-Malthusians

This Earth Day we heard various commentators bemoan the growth in population, consumption, and carbon emissions driven by fossil fueled technologies. Once again we are told that this is unsustainable, that we are running out of resources, prices are inevitably headed up, and, worse, such consumption reduces  both environmetal and human well-being. In this worldview, industrialization and economic development were fashioned in the Devil’s crucible, and that de-industrialization and de-development will be our saviour.

I have started a series of posts at Master Resources that compares the above Neo-Malthusian view of industrialization, economic growth, and technological change against empirical data on human well-being from the age of industrialization.  The first post revisits the bet made in 1980 by Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich on the direction of commodity prices, and examines long term trends in the prices and affordability of various commodities.  Specifically,  for metals, I look at trends going back to 1800, while for food I examine trends from 1900 onward. Parts II and III will compare long term trends in population, consumption, economic development, and carbon emissions against trends in human well-being for the world (from 1750 onward) and the United States (from 1900 onward). Finally, Part IV will provide an explanation as to why empirical data is at odds with the Neo-Malthusian worldview.

Part I, which examines the Simon-Ehrlich Bet in the context of long term trends in the prices and affordability of various commodities, is here.

Oil Import Make Believe

A conversation with documentarian Robert Stone regarding Earth Day is featured today in The New York Times’s “Dot Earth” online column.  In the course of his conversation with the Times’s Andrew Revkin, Mr. Stone – who is quite alarmed about our reliance on foreign oil – asks:  “How many Americans know that we send about $800 billion to the Middle East every year for oil?”

Hopefully, not many. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. spent $95.4 billion on crude oil imports from OPEC sources in 2009.  But not all OPEC members are from the Middle East.  That $95.4 billion includes dollars spent on oil originating from Algeria ($6.3 billion), Angola ($9 billion), Ecuador ($3.4 billion), Nigeria ($17.7 billion), and Venezuela ($23.4 billion) – none of which are in the Middle East.  Subtract out that oil and we arrive at $35.6 billion spent on Middle Eastern crude oil (a figure rounded from the original nominal counts.  I have used the customs value – that is, the estimated value – of the oil being imported rather than the figures that include additional costs for insurance and transportation because money being spent on insurance and shipping goes to third parties that are not for the most part located in the Middle East.  But if one wants to use those slightly higher figures, it won’t change the numbers very much at all).

For what it’s worth, the total amount of dollars Americans sent abroad for crude oil from all sources was $188.5 billion last year.

Even if the figure were $800 billion, so what?  No one is forcing refineries to buy crude oil from foreign suppliers.  They presumably believe that the oil at issue is more valuable than the money that must be offered to secure said oil and that oil from other sources is more expensive than oil from the Middle East. Hence, they buy. This is by definition a wealth creating transaction for American business enterprises. Foreign trade, Mr. Stone, is a good thing.

The implicit claim, of course, is that there are negative externalities associated with foreign oil consumption. This, however, is faith masquerading as fact (an argument also well made by Cato adjunct scholar Richard Gordon).

Regardless, Mr. Stone overstates the alleged problem by orders of magnitude.

Earth Day Links

Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, a time to highlight and discuss ways to work toward a cleaner planet. Cato’s energy and environment research promotes policies that would help protect the environment without sacrificing economic liberty, goals that are mutually supporting, not mutually exclusive.

  • Why we should thank capitalism for environmental gains: “It is businessmen — not bureaucrats or environmental activists — who deserve most of the credit for the environmental gains over the past century and who represent the best hope for a Greener tomorrow.”
  • Finding the right balance: “Today, America’s environment is cleaner—and Earth Day has indeed helped ensure that. …We should renew our promise to keep the environment clean—without adding to human misery or stalling improvements in the human condition.”

New at Cato

  • Will Wilkinson warns of problems with Obama’s budget on Marketplace.
  • Richard Rahn explains why the current tax system needs to be overhauled and replaced in The Washington Times.
  • In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Swaminathan Aiyar discusses the future of the dollar.

I Swear I’m Not Making This Up

From today’s Washington Post:

In another sign that the Department of Agriculture is embracing sustainable food, the agency today will unveil expanded plans for a People’s Garden that will include the entire six-acre grounds of the Whitten Building, the department’s neoclassic marble headquarters on the Mall.

The plans, to be announced at the agency’s Earth Day celebrations, include a 1,300-square-foot organic vegetable garden – slightly larger than the one at the White House – as well as ornamental flower gardens and bioswales, or mini-wetlands designed to reduce pollution and surface water runoff.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find out exactly what a “bioswale” is, and why I should pay for one in our new “People’s Garden.”