April 19, 2004
By Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
Some holidays, such as Veteran's Day and Memorial Day, are a
time for reflection. Others, like July 4th and Thanksgiving, are a
time for celebration. This year, we ought to add Earth Day to the
list of days to celebrate -- but only if we rename it Growth
As in "economic growth." Believe it or not, nothing's better at
cleaning up the environment and keeping it clean.
Many on the radical left dispute this, of course. Indeed, they
fault the industrialized nations for allegedly endangering our
planet. Yet the opposite is true. That's why the major
environmentalist movements are all based in Western countries,
where people are wealthy enough to be concerned about the world
around them -- and have the wherewithal to protect it. Our own
country provides a perfect example.
Almost all the settlers who arrived here hundreds of years ago were
subsistence farmers. They cleared hundreds of millions of acres of
trees. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and
Natural Resources, "A single household could consume 20 to 40 cords
of wood annually." Economic growth changed all that.
First, we progressed from wood to coal. This allowed us to begin
replacing millions of trees. Plus, coal was more efficient and
easier to transport than wood, so it took less to produce more
But even coal is fairly dirty, and of course digging it out of the
ground affects the environment. So the country moved on to natural
gas. It was safer, easier to get and cleaner burning.
The economic growth made possible in part by these new fuel sources
allowed people to leave their farms and make a living in
manufacturing and service industries. That translated into higher
incomes. Today, the United States has a per capita income of
$37,600. Our crops literally feed the world, even though fewer than
three out of every 100 Americans are farmers.
If we want the rest of the world to be as clean as we are, we
should shun the guerrilla tactics of the radical environmental
activists. What's needed are the free-market ideas that have fueled
our economic growth and led to prosperity. Studies show that air
and water pollution start plummeting once per capita income in a
country reaches more than $3,500 a year.
In the meantime, of course, Americans are still giving
environmentalists plenty to complain about, because we drive
gasoline-powered cars. But with technology improving our vehicles
all the time, they're not really the disaster some claim.
Our environment has improved markedly over the last three decades,
even as the population rose 30 percent, the number of licensed
vehicles jumped 87 percent, and vehicle miles traveled increased
more than 125 percent.
Consider, too, the jobs generated by cars. They include everything
from high-paying manufacturing, repair and sales jobs to
entry-level gas station attendant positions. Plus, by allowing us
to get around quickly and easily, cars enabled people to move out
of crowded cities into suburbs, where they're in closer contact
And let's not forget what autos replaced: horses. Back in the days
when horse-drawn carriages were the main means of transportation,
our streets were filled with manure. This waste was itself a
dangerous form of pollution.
Horses required tons of hay, which meant thousands of acres of
farmland were needed to grow food for animal use, not human
consumption. The invention of the car actually helped clean our
streets, clear our air and free land for more productive use.
People are more likely to be concerned about the environment when
they have the time to appreciate nature. That's a luxury still not
enjoyed in poor nations, where too many people eke out a living
through subsistence farming.
The best way to clean up our planet and keep it clean is to
generate worldwide economic growth and lift everyone to the same
level of prosperity Americans take for granted. Let's get started
on April 22, the new international Growth Day.
Some holidays, such as Veteran's Day and Memorial Day, are a time for reflection. Others, like July 4th and Thanksgiving, are a time for celebration. This year, we ought to add Earth Day to the list of days to celebrate -- but only if we rename it Growth Day.
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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