Capitalism is the Great Anti-Pollutant

Climate science today is a veritable cornucopia of unanswered questions. Photo: Corbis

Contrary to popular myth, the environment over the past 200 years has become less polluted and toxic for humans.

In July 1924, Calvin Coolidge Jr., the Presdient’s 16-year-old son, died of an infection from a toe blister he got playing tennis on the White House lawn. The bacteria that took young Calvin’s life is staphylococcus aureus, known as “staph.” …

Were health-care products such as antibiotics, antibacterial ointments, and inexpensive clean and disposable bandages available 92 years ago, Calvin Coolidge Jr., would have escaped the bacterial pollution that killed him. Factories and vehicles used to produce and distribute these items use energy, and dispense waste. But capitalist production and consumption are not destroying a pristine Eden. Instead, capitalist production and consumption are replacing more immediate and more lethal forms of environmental pollution for less immediate and less lethal forms.

We denizens of modern market economies are today largely free not only of the filth of lethal staph infections, but also of other up-close and dangerous pollutants that our ancestors routinely endured, or died of. We sleep, in sturdy buildings, on beds that rest on hard floors beneath hard roofs. Our pre-industrial ancestors did not. Save for the tiny fraction of people in the nobility and clergy, nearly everyone slept in flimsy huts on dirt floors beneath thatched roofs. (Sometimes these dirt floors would be strewn with hay, thresh, to make them less unpleasant.)

Not only were thresh-strewn dirt floors obvious sources of regular up-close pollution of a sort that is unknown to a typical first-world person today, thatched roof themselves were ferments of filth. They kept out rain and cold less effectively than our modern dwellings. Worse, they were home to rats, mice, birds, spiders, hornets, and other animals, which would drop their own wastes onto the huts’ inhabitants. They were also highly flammable.

Of course these pre-industrial huts contained no running water or indoor plumbing. Daily bathing and other routines of personal hygiene that we moderns take for granted were largely unknown to most before the industrial revolution.

For heat in the winter families would bring farm animals into the huts, especially at night. To shield themselves from the droppings of these farm animals, each of these families would cut a trench in the floor across the width their hut. They’d sleep on the side of the trench opposite where the animals slept. Unfortunately, the trench did little to protect the family from whatever insects the animals brought into the huts with them.

With no refrigeration, pre-industrial people had great difficulty keeping their foods fresh and safe. This reality is one reason why starvation and malnutrition were far more common before the industrial revolution than they have been since.

Refrigeration is another means by which we modern folk protect ourselves from bacterial pollution. Other such means are the inexpensive canning of foods, disposable plastic wraps and bags, and household detergents and cleansers.

Each of these modern amenities, from the justly celebrated antibiotics in our medicine cabinets to the unjustly ignored hard roofs above our heads, is an anti-pollutant made possible only by capitalist innovation and methods of production and distribution.

To focus only on the kinds of pollution generated by free markets while being blind to the kinds of pollution eradicated by free markets is not only to miss half of the picture; it is to miss the most important half. All things considered, capitalism has eliminated far more and far worse pollutants than it has generated.

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