There are plenty of potential sources of concern when it comes to the environment. We are polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink; we are depleting the oceans of fish; we are punching holes in the ozone layer; we are warming the climate to dangerous levels—and all of these problems, we are given to believe, are only getting worse.
Taken together, these worries, along with the ones discussed in more detail above, make up what Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg referred to as The Litany in his controversial(1) 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg plumbs the available data and the environmentalists’ arguments on each of these issues and discovers, to his surprise, that things are not as bad as they are made out to be. Like forest cover, air and water quality are generally improving in the developed world, and have been for decades. The ozone problem had a fairly simple and affordable solution which has been implemented. As for the climate issue, even setting aside the serious uncertainties contained in computer models, it will be much easier for us to adapt to future warming than to try, largely in vain, to prevent it. Our trillions of dollars, Lomborg emphasizes, would be far better spent dealing with more pressing problems like poverty in the developing world—and, he adds, helping the world’s poor climb out of poverty would have the additional benefit of allowing them the relative luxury of caring about and improving the state of their forests and the quality of their air.
We need not choose between improving the environment and alleviating world poverty, for the two categories of problems stem from the same kinds of causes. It is inadequately secure property rights and protectionist trade policies that keep the world’s poor from improving their lot; it is the absence of adequate property rights that threatens the ocean’s fisheries; it is irrational government policies that give polluters the right to pollute and forbid those whose property is polluted from seeking damages; it is government subsidies that lead to the wasteful use of water and other resources. We don’t often hear it in the media, but the solution to global poverty and to the environmental problems that do exist is one and the same: greater economic freedom.
1. Readers who are curious about this controversy are invited to visit www.greenspirit.com to see the debate between Lomborg and Scientific American, and decide for themselves which party is trying to clarify the issues and which is trying to muddy the waters.
Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.