Most environmentalists believe that the world’s worst polluter, the State, is the only way to save the environment. They scoff when you mention the environmentally friendly advances that have been made by market actors. Worse yet, they often disparage market advancements that have greatly improved the environment, such as the internal combustion engine:
The internal-combustion engine began improving the environment, however, long before global warming became a concern. Consider the fact that in 1900 a large percentage of the available horsepower really was horse power, or mule power, or ox power. As the power of the internal-combustion engine began to be substituted for animal power in the early 1900s, we began to substitute the emissions coming out of the tailpipes of cars and trucks for those coming out of the tailpipes of animals. The result was that the environment started becoming far cleaner and healthier.
Consider horse manure’s effect on the environment and health of New Yorkers in 1900. Robert Fogel, a Nobel Prize-winning economic historian, writes:
We complain a lot about air pollution today, but there were 200,000 horses in New York City, at the beginning of the 20th century defecating everywhere. And when you walked around in New York City, you were breathing pulverized horse manure—a much worse pollutant, than the exhausts of automobiles. Indeed in the United States, the automobile was considered the solution to the horse problem because pulverized horse manure carried a lot of deadly pathogens.
No serious person denies that photochemical smog from gas-powered vehicles is a health risk. It would be silly to do so. It would be even sillier, however, to deny Fogel’s observation that the air and water pollution from horse manure was a far greater health risk than the pollution from cars and trucks. Diseases such as cholera, typhoid, typhus, yellow fever, and diphtheria were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans in the early twentieth century. As cars and trucks began replacing horses and other beasts of burden, these deaths began to decline dramatically. Medical improvements get some of the credit, but most of the credit during the early decades of the twentieth century goes to the reduced filth in the environment from animal waste.
People forget the past. Environmentalists, who often rant about how much more environmental damage humans are causing today than in the past, seem to have forgotten just how terrible living conditions were barely a century ago. Humanity’s agricultural knowledge was far more limited, which means farmers commonly practiced more damaging forms of agriculture. Horses were the primary mode of transportation, which introduced a great amount of biological contaminants to metropolitan areas. Trash was often discarded in place instead of collected and moved to a designated dump.
Our species has come a long ways in terms of environmentalism and not because of the State but because of rational self-interest. Having a cleaner environment benefits us so market forces have been hard at work reducing humanity’s environmental impact. This hard work continues today. Energy production continues to cause environmental damage. While the State has continued to hinder cleaner forms of energy production such as nuclear power plants, the market has been hard at work making more power efficient devices. Devices that use less energy reduce the load on power production facilities, which means less new facilities have to be built to meet demands. Mining is another activity that causes notable environmental damage and the market is once again responding. Apple has announced that it will rely on recycled materials instead of newly mined materials and other companies are likely to follow suit.
Environmentalists should be cheering the market, not condemning it.