Earth Day: The Greener Side of Growth

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It may not be a popular fact, but a fact it is: the environment is getting cleaner, and it has since about the mid-20th century. The question is, what caused this improvement? How can we keep it going? Over at Topix.com, my colleague Geoffrey McLatchey and I argue that the best answer for both questions is wealth creation:

Economic growth and environmental quality are not opposing values. They go hand-in-hand. Something happens to a country when its per capita GDP reaches about $5,000 (U.S. per capita GDP is about $48,000). At that point, families are certainly not rich. But they don’t have to worry as much about where their next meal will come from. They can afford to begin to take care of other needs, such as building sewage systems and other pollution-reducing infrastructure. Instead of using wood for heating and cooking, people can turn to more efficient fossil fuels, which means less deforestation. Farmers can afford to adopt modern techniques that produce more food with less land, leaving more left over for wildlife.

That’s the good news. The even better news is that greater progress is on the horizon. The number of people living in absolute poverty halved between 1990 and 2010, and the number continues to dwindle. Remarkably, this is happening even as global population increases. As more countries pass the $5,000-per capita benchmark, ecosystems around the world will benefit.

Read the whole thing here. Even if people do concede to the data and admit that the world’s environmental situation isn’t doom-and-gloom, they often give credit to the EPA. A glance at my recent EPA report card will hopefully disabuse people of that notion. Innovation, not regulation, is what will keep the environment healthy. That’s the lesson people should take from Earth Day.

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