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.

The opposite is also apparent. The relative inefficiency of communism resulted in some of the most god-awful air and water on earth. Tourists riding the rails east to Berlin didn’t need to be told when they crossed the Iron Curtain—it was obvious looking out the window at the dilapidated infrastructure and the smoke-belching two-stroke Trabants (when they were running), communist Germany’s edition of the people’s car.

Then there’s Haiti. Centuries of corruption simply stopped economic development. But people need to cook and clean, so they chopped down pretty much every mature tree within reach. When a hurricane comes by–thanks to the environmental degradation wrought by poverty–hillsides, buildings, and people wash into the sea. Across the midline of Hispaniola is the Dominican Republic—no economic paradise, but certainly better off than Haiti. The same storm will cause fewer problems.

Environmental protection is fractal—meaning its relative dimensions are the same regardless of size. Like countries, clean states are rich. On the other hand, if you need to see abandoned cars, washing machines, and giant satellite dishes (often serving as a tether for Fido) just go to rural West Virginia or New Mexico.

How about within cities? The nomenklatura residents of Northwest Washington D.C. drive Priuses, are paid handsomely with other people’s money, and their neighborhoods are wonderfully pretty. A trip across the Anacostia to the poor Southeast quadrant saves time and gas if you need to see environmental degradation, beater cars, and the society the nomenklatura bought for others.

At the continental level, an environmental comparison between North and South America, or between Europe and Africa says enough.

It’s kind of obvious: The fastest way to environmental protection is a free economy, greening the earth by producing green.