United Airlines has announced it won’t be flying people to New Delhi, in India, due to the high levels of pollution there. Dhaka, Bangladesh, suffers from similar problems, as do Jakarta and Tehran. In Beijing, the pollution is so bad the accurate readings from the machines on top of the U.S. Embassy building are denounced in the communist press as vile propaganda. We could, as many environmentalists do, announce that this is just evidence that we cannot have economic growth as it pollutes the planet and the people.
The truth is rather different. This is, as P.J. O’Rourke has put it, the glorious stink of poor people getting rich. It’s also what happened to our own grandparents – or if you’re as old as I am, parents. Smogs of coal dust caused air pollution that killed thousands of people a year in London into the adult lifetime of my own parents. The Cuyahoga River through Cleveland caught fire at least 13 times between 1868 and 1969. Really, a river burning.
This is all indeed caused by economic growth. But the solution to it is not less growth, it’s more. This is such a standard economic point that we have a name for it: the environmental Kuznets Curve. It's an adaptation of Maslow’s Pyramid. We humans tend to think of things in stages, layers. Sleep and thirst first, then food, then clothing, shelter — when those desires or needs are met, then we move up to other things: culture, transport, entertainment, leisure, and so on.
Thus what happens when we’re all earning $3 a day (that historical experience of mankind, yes, in modern prices after adjusting for inflation) is that we’ll not give a damn about polluting if it means we’re going to get three squares a day. But what happens when we are all getting that, plus a roof over our heads, a change of shirts, and the ability to have an hour in the bar? Well, observably, what happens is that we start to realize that that choking air isn’t all that pleasant, no one’s living past 60, and the kids are dying in droves. At which point we start to spend the next portion of increased economic growth, our new wealth, on reducing those problems. We dig sewers, stop wood and coal-fired heating in cities (you would be astonished at how much urban air pollution in the U.S. still comes from wood burners), limit what cars may belch out, and so on.
In economic jargon, a clean environment is a “luxury good.” No, not that it is a luxury, something only the rich can have — it’s a technical phrase. It means something that we spend a higher portion of our income upon as we generally get richer. Thus these stinks and pollution clouds are a self-solving problem, in the sense that this is what we turn our attention to once we’ve solved those more pressing problems of not dying of starvation – not in the sense that we’ve not got to do anything at all.
The actual truth today is that the great cities of Europe and North America are cleaner than they ever have been, cleaner than any place in Europe was in 1500. And what will happen is that those megacities of the developing world will follow in exactly the same footsteps. Not because we have to campaign for it, but simply because this is what human beings do: solve problems in sequence, pollution and the environment being one that requires economic wealth before we turn our attention to it.
There is also good news on this subject. It’s a general truism that “catch up” growth is easier than doing it for the first time. China has been growing at 10 percent for decades now, as Japan and South Korea did, as India and Bangladesh are. These are growth rates vastly exceeding anything Britain or the U.S. ever managed as they pioneered the industrial society, because it’s possible to see what must be done rather than having to invent it all for the first time.
The same is true of our environmental Kuznets Curve. Those developing countries are curbing pollution at earlier stages of economic growth than we ourselves did. Largely, I would argue, because they know how to do it now that the west has already done it — therefore it costs less in lost growth and so, as is true of near all things which are cheaper, they do more of it.
It's entirely true that large parts of the developing world are foully polluted at present. Just as the similar stages of our own economic development were. The good news is that, firstly, this is evidence that they are getting richer; Secondly, that they’ll curb the pollution as we did as they get richer yet; and thirdly, they’ll do it faster and earlier than we did. The air in New Delhi, Dhaka, Jakarta, and Beijing is vile today, but it’s a sure thing that it won’t be in 20 years.
Tim Worstall (@worstall) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.
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