We can prosper and still protect the environment

Increasing prosperity allows people once too poor to avoid environmental dead-ends to instead care for the environment

You may know this frightening if self-evident bit of advice: “Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught and the last stream poisoned will we realize we cannot eat money.”

The quote is ostensibly from Canada’s First Nations peoples (the Cree are often cited) but popularized by Greenpeace.

The point is clear enough: Anyone with sense should avoid killing the Earth and/or their own future just to make a few bucks.

But most of life is not composed of such binary, either/or dramatic choices. You can fish, for example, just as some First Nations did 15,000 years ago or 15 minutes ago, without necessarily depleting fish stocks.

As with all of life, it’s a question of balance. That includes managing government lands (always more difficult than managing private property) so resources are not overused and depleted.

That noted, here’s the other reality check on the romanticized quotation: Economic growth – implicitly criticized – can and has damaged the environment. However, increasing prosperity, once a minimum threshold of subsistence income is reached, inevitably allows for improved ecosystems.

For example, 140 years ago, London’s River Thames was a polluted, poisonous, dead body of water. When a passenger ship sunk in 1878 after a collision, at least some of the 600 passengers who died might have survived. The problem was that as some swam to shore, they were overcome “by the noxious cocktail of pollution in the water,” according to the Daily Telegraph.

By 1957, the Thames was pronounced biologically dead. But after an intensive environmental program, as well as improved technology, it was revived. As of 2010, when the Telegraph published its story, the river was home to 125 types of fish and more than 400 species of invertebrates. Herons and seals now frolic near Canary Wharf.

Ponder another example: In the 1950s and in subsequent decades, Los Angeles was choked by smog. Public demands coupled with technological advances (you need the second to realistically satisfy the first) meant air quality improved by the time I lived there briefly in the 1980s. The smog was still there, but Los Angeles air was far better than in previous decades. L.A. air quality has also steadily improved in the last three decades, despite the many more people who live and drive in the city and state.

Then there are trees. Forest cover around the world has been recovering for decades in every place where people have prospered under increasingly market-friendly economies. According to Human Progress, China, Europe and North America have all gained forest cover in the last three decades: 511,800 square kilometres more in China; 212,122 more in Europe; and 64,410 square kilometres in North America.

The exception to this positive trend has been in countries that are poor, thus Africa is still losing forest cover. No surprise there. Mothers and fathers need fuel to cook food for their families, and if trees are the only option, expect them to disappear. The remedy is to use natural gas or electricity from hydro, where available. That will prevent cutting down the last tree.

The other remedy is more and not less economic growth to advance human prosperity. Those in poverty, either as families or entire countries, have nothing left with which to buy less-polluting energy. In the case of governments, it’s difficult to require and enforce more stringent pollution controls when consumers live hand-to-mouth and companies are barely profitable. Widespread prosperity allows families to purchase other forms of energy rather than burning what’s nearest to them.

None of this means nirvana exists.

In China, for example, while forest cover has increased, smog is thick for much of the year. That nation’s consumers, businesses and often-corrupt governments, in particular, could usefully spend more money on effective environmental improvements.

Overfishing in the oceans is still a problem. That speaks to the need for (some) environmental organizations to stop opposing fish farming, which can ease pressure on fish stocks in the commons.

But the general rule holds: Increasing prosperity allows people once too poor to avoid environmental dead-ends to instead have the money and time to care for the environment.

Only when the last bit of propaganda from Greenpeace ends might more people realize that from increasing forest cover to cleaner rivers, many environmental indicators have been trending positive for decades.

Mark Milke is an author, policy analyst and contributor to Canadians for Affordable Energy.


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