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Poverty and pollution

Remembering the economist who showed Westerners can be friends of the poor and the environment


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Julian Simon, University of Maryland professor and author of The Ultimate Resource and Population Matters, died last month. He was known as an iconoclastic scholar whose research and writing on the economics of population growth flew in the face of conventional, Malthusian population-control wisdom.

Once a proponent of population control, Mr. Simon turned against it when his research in the late 1960s and early 1970s-begun with the intent of providing scholarly support for population-control programs-led him to conclude that dense population and rapid population growth lead to economic growth and environmental improvement, not poverty and environmental destruction. His first major assault on the conventional wisdom came in The Economics of Population Growth (1977). In the ensuing two decades he continued to criticize popular fears of overpopulation and resource depletion; he assaulted with scholarly research and popular writing the theories on which those fears were built.

Mr. Simon gained notoriety on the popular level in part by besting popular Malthusian guru Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Mr. Ehrlich had predicted that minerals would become more expensive in a decade; Mr. Simon wagered that prices would go down, and he won.

In two large edited volumes, The Resourceful Earth (1984) and The State of Humanity (1995), Mr. Simon discussed positive long-term trends-and their underlying causes-in such matters as human life, health, standard of living, resource supplies and prices, economic and technological development, and environmental quality. One of Mr. Simon's constant themes was the necessity of economic development to enable people to afford environmental protection and recovery. WORLD correspondent Cal Beisner reports on how his experience in India brought to life Mr. Simon's theories.

I learned much from Julian Simon's writing, which fit in with my own observations. Several years ago, I attended the Oxford Conference on Christian Faith and Economics at Agra, India-city of the beautiful Taj Mahal. I, like many other conference participants, was struck by many things: hard-working, friendly, often generous people, each striving to improve life for himself and his family; thousands of charming little children working right alongside their elders in the shops, cottage industries, factories, and streets; beautiful, handwoven rugs, tapestries, and clothes; exquisite handmade pottery, some of it produced with the same mosaic techniques that mark the Taj Mahal itself. All of these signs I saw, and many others, of a society brimming with enterprise.

But in the very same place I saw other signs, the signs of poverty.

Most of the hard-working, generous people I saw in the shops and factories, pedaling the rickshaws, or eagerly selling their handmade wares were clearly poor, devastatingly so. In 1994, India's gross national product per capita was only about a tenth of Latin America's average, and less than one-eightieth that of the United States; its under-5 mortality rate was more than twice Latin America's and almost 10 times that of the United States. The average life expectancy for Indians was significantly lower than that of Americans.

With the Indians' poverty came the visible signs so familiar to anyone who spends time among the poor. Their clothing usually fit poorly, was heavily worn, often repeatedly mended, and more often in need of mending. Despite their honest efforts, they usually were not very clean. The tools of their trade were old and inefficient. Many, even most of them, lived on the streets, the better off among them in little, makeshift huts of discarded scrap metal or wood. Almost all looked prematurely aged, their teeth and hands joined by their wrinkled faces in quiet testimony to a hard life.

One of the signs of the poverty of these people, one that almost every Western environmentalist would completely misunderstand, was the lamentable state of their environment. To call it polluted, for someone accustomed to life in the West, would be the grossest understatement. Indeed, among people gathered for that conference, including Christian missionaries from all over the world, one of the most common observations was that this was the filthiest place we had ever witnessed.

Most environmentalists blindly accept Paul Ehrlich's formula that negative environmental impact varies directly in proportion to population, affluence, and technology (I = PAT). They would not understand that the wretched environment of Agra, like that of almost all India, is directly rooted in its lack of advanced technologies and lack of wealth, the presence of which environmentalists blame for environmental degradation.

Indians do not burn dried dung and scrap wood as their chief sources of heat and cooking fuel because they prefer them to natural gas and electricity, but because their society is too poor to provide the infrastructure to produce and deliver natural gas and electricity. The people are too poor to pay for these cleaner energy sources-or the furnaces and stoves that would use them-even if they were available.

They don't like breathing air choked with the smoke of burning dung, and they would gladly trade that for the smog of moderately advanced industrialized cities if they could afford it-let alone for the clean air of most of the high-income cities of Western Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan, where smog levels have been falling for most of the last three decades.

But that is exactly the problem. In India, people can't afford the cleaner environment, because they can't afford the technologies that enable them to have a clean environment. So they, along with hundreds of millions of others in poor countries, suffer the environmental costs of poverty: indoor air pollution from the coarsest biomass fuels, which cause respiratory diseases that take millions of lives annually; untreated or minimally treated sewage that contaminates surface and subsurface drinking water sources, so millions more die; low-efficiency car and truck engines that burn high-lead and high-sulphur fuel, which adds still more air pollution.

As these economies grow, through continued hard work, learning, and capital investment, these sources of the sorts of pollution that cost the most in human health and life will diminish. But it will take time, and it won't be easy.

How do Western environmentalist leaders react?

`By insisting, with Vice President Gore, that fighting global warming-even the reality of which, let alone the extent and impact, is open to serious debate among climatologists-should be the central organizing principle of human civilization. Although they know that energy use drives economic growth, which replaces poverty with affluence, they insist that fossil fuel use be strictly limited.

`By insisting that chlorofluorocarbons, the cheapest and least corrosive of refrigerants, be banned to protect the stratospheric ozone layer from depletion. Never mind that ozone depletion remains largely a theoretical concern and that even if true, it cannot be heavily influenced by a reduction in human sources of the ozone-destroying chlorine monoxide that are dwarfed by nature's sources. Environmentalists press ahead with their plans to ban CFCs even though the ban will delay the time when poor people in poor countries can afford the refrigeration they so desperately need to minimize food spoilage and the malnutrition and food poisoning associated with it.

`By putting greater emphasis on saving theoretically endangered species than the lives of hundreds of millions of people endangered by malnutrition and disease.

The irony is that Western environmentalist leaders are cutting off the branch on which they sit. Environmentalism is distinctly a preoccupation of the wealthy. Environmental protection increases to the extent that a society becomes wealthy enough to afford it. To the extent that they succeed in slowing economic growth anywhere in the world-in rich and poor nations alike-environmentalists delay the growth of environmental protection. While they're at it, they generate an understandable resentment among the poor, who see these environmentalist leaders standing in the way of economic growth that will keep children from dying or suffering serious, lifelong respiratory ailments.

As they alienate the poor, environmentalists create a mistrust that will delay the time when the poor, ascending out of their poverty, become willing to allocate significant parts of their newfound wealth to environmental protection.

Real friends of the environment recognize that growing economies are the environment's best friends. As Indur M. Goklany points out: "The level of affluence at which a pollutant level peaks (or environmental transition occurs) varies. A World Bank analysis concluded that urban [airborne particulate matter] and [sulfur dioxide] concentrations peaked at per capita incomes of $3,280 and $3,670, respectively. Fecal coliform [bacteria] in river water increased with affluence until income reached $1,375 per capita."

After these peaks, pollutant levels fall off rapidly as wealth continues to increase. This means that real friends of the environment are also real friends of the poor-unlike those who mistakenly believe that economic growth threatens the environment-for they will promote the economic growth that not only improves the health, life expectancy, and material standard of living of the poor, but also leads to a cleaner, safer, more sustainable environment.

Such was Julian Simon's vision, and it is one that growing numbers of people are coming to understand-many because of his untiring labors. Many death notices advise friends that in lieu of flowers they can send donations to charities. The best tribute to Julian Simon will be the spreading acceptance of his vision, and a growing prosperity that improves both human lives and the environment.

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