October 22, 2018 Reading Time: 4 minutes

We’re lucky to live in a time and place where it might make sense to worry about climate change. Very lucky indeed.

This essay is not about climate change. I here offer no opinion on its reality, its magnitude, or its causes. And except for rejecting worst-case-scenario predictions, I also refrain from speculating on its likely consequences. I argue instead only that, whatever worries might trouble us today about climate change, we should consider ourselves fortunate to be so troubled. The reason is that we have been liberated from the foulest and most lethal environmental hazards that cursed our pre-industrial ancestors.

Were we not so liberated, all of the predicted ill-consequences of climate change – except, perhaps, the most extreme and unbelievable ones – would rank so low on our scale of concerns as not to register at all. The relatively remote and provisional concerns about climate change register in our consciousness only because the industrial market economy has so thoroughly scrubbed our environment clean. Yet our resulting focus on climate change and other environmental costs conventionally blamed on the market causes us to miss the market’s enormous environmental benefits.

Our Sanitary Homes

Consider your home. Beneath your feet you have hard floors rather than floors of dirt. Above your head you have a hard roof rather than one of thatch. As a result, far fewer fungi, bacteria, insects, and rodents pollute the surface of your living space. And you endure no birds, mice, rats, wasps, and other pests living, nesting, and expelling their wastes on top of you. Lucky you – and all of us today: the historians Frances and Joseph Gies report that thatched roofs were common even in London until the 18th century.

Oh, by the way, thatched roofs were highly prone to catch fire – thus killing the pests living within them and, frequently, the people living beneath them.

You today also have potable water available through your faucets. And you possess indoor plumbing, the sanitary advantages of which need not be spelled out. You have artificial lighting along with electric, gas, oil, or solar heating – meaning that you light and heat your home without emitting any particulate matter into the air that you breathe within your home. In the summer you enjoy air-conditioning that not only keeps mold and mildew from growing in your home, it also protects you and your family from heat that is often debilitating and sometimes lethal.

In your medicine cabinet there are sanitary disposable bandages and antibacterial ointments (and, perhaps, even antibiotic pills) that painlessly cleanse your cuts, scrapes, and blisters of bacteria that might otherwise kill you. I do not exaggerate. In 1924, 16-year-old Calvin Coolidge, Jr., got a blister on his toe while playing tennis on the White House grounds. A week later the boy – the son of the president of the United States – died from a staph infection.

Another possession of yours that protects you from bacterial pollution is your refrigerator-freezer combo. This appliance – often in league with plastic wrap and freezer bags – not only helps you to spread your income farther by allowing you to keep leftovers to eat another day, it also reduces the amount of time you spend shopping for food. The milk, cheese, and flank steak that you will eat on Tuesday can all be bought when you shop at the supermarket for coffee, cantaloupes, and paper towels on the previous Saturday.

Of course, Campbell’s soups and other canned foods remain unpolluted by bacteria even longer than those that you refrigerate.

Speaking of paper towels, these inexpensive tools combine with equally inexpensive antibacterial cleansers to enable you to speedily and effortlessly wipe away the bacteria that pollute your bathroom vanities and kitchen countertops. Your electric dishwasher cleans and sanitizes your dishes far better than you can achieve by washing them by hand. And odor-resistant plastic garbage bags make daily disposal of your household trash quick, easy, and safe

Anti-pollution marvels also inhabit your laundry room. Automatic clothes washers and dryers – along with powerful detergents, bleach, and stain-removers – allow you, using just minutes of your time daily, to clean the likes of your shirts, pants, underwear, and bedding not only of grime and unsightly blemishes but also of putrid bacteria.

The Automobile: Environmental Friend

In your garage or driveway sits yet another amazing anti-pollutant: your automobile. Sure, it does emit carbon monoxide into the air when you drive it, but your automobile does not emit onto the streets on which you live and work the bacterial wastes that were emitted by the horses and other draft animals that people used before the automobile became ubiquitous. Not only did the constant coating of the noxious mix of feces, urine, spittle, and snot make using streets and sidewalks unpleasant in ways that we in 2018 cannot imagine, it also attracted flies and other insects that distributed the filth into our homes, schools, churches, theaters, shops, factories, and offices.

And these draft animals died on the streets in large numbers. For example, in 1880 an average of 41 horses daily dropped dead on the streets of Manhattan. The carcasses were often left to rot and, thus, to attract into urban spaces even greater swarms of carrion, vermin, and insects.

Who among us really believes that the convenience, comfort, and speed of automobiles are not worth the cost of automobile emissions when compared to the inconvenience, discomfort, slowness, and in-our-noses and on-our-feet massive emissions of filth from horses and draft animals?

Cleaned by Capitalism

Any clear-eyed examination of daily capitalist reality reveals that the environment within which each of us lives today is far more sanitary, safe, and pleasant – far less polluted – than was the daily environment of our pre-industrial ancestors. This fact doesn’t mean that climate change and other alleged environmental problems aren’t real or worth trying to mitigate. But an honest assessment of the environmental consequences of industrial market economies does lead to the conclusion that, all things considered, humankind’s environment, far from being polluted by capitalism, has been cleaned by capitalism. We would be wise to remember this reality when crafting environmental policies.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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