Sen. Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day in 1970 to raise awareness of environmental issues. The idea took off, and partially as a result of the massive support it received, President Richard Nixon signed legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later that same year. Forty-three years later, Earth Day is still being celebrated not only in America, but around the world.
Environmental quality has improved across the board since its mid-20th century nadir. This certainly deserves celebrating. Our air and water are cleaner than before. Deforestation has slowed by two thirds since the 1980s, and has even given way to reforestation in some parts of the world. Disease rates are down and life expectancy is going up, in large part because the environment is cleaner than it used to be.
What caused this wonderful development? It wasn't the EPA, or its equivalents around the world. The environment is getting better because people are wealthier than they used to be. They can now afford to be better environmental stewards.
Economic growth and environmental quality are not opposing values. They go hand-in-hand. Something happens to a country when its per capita GDP reaches about $5,000 (U.S. per capita GDP is about $48,000). At that point, families are certainly not rich. But they don't have to worry as much about where their next meal will come from. They can afford to begin to take care of other needs, such as building sewage systems and other pollution-reducing infrastructure. Instead of using wood for heating and cooking, people can turn to more efficient fossil fuels, which means less deforestation. Farmers can afford to adopt modern techniques that produce more food with less land, leaving more left over for wildlife.
That's the good news. The even better news is that greater progress is on the horizon. The number of people living in absolute poverty has http://econ.st/10kWlAk between 1990 and 2010, and the number continues to dwindle. Remarkably, this is happening even as global population increases. As more countries pass the $5,000-per capita benchmark, ecosystems around the world will benefit.
A necessary factor for developing countries to reach that level is fossil fuel consumption, which has liberated humanity from backbreaking work through labor-saving machinery and enabled the ease and distance of transportation. While environmentalists complain that fossil fuel use has led to an excessive level of carbon dioxide emissions, they fail to note that water vapor is a much more prevalent greenhouse gas. Moreover, the slowdown of warming over the last 16 years now also gives hope that climate change fears have been exaggerated.
Regulatory solutions to environmental problems are far less effective than wealth creation, and cost a lot more. The EPA currently enforces more than 154,000 specific regulatory restrictions, for which compliance costs are estimated at $353 billion per year - more than the entire national GDPs of some countries, including Denmark and Thailand.
Most environmental indicators began to turn in an upward positive trend a few decades before the EPA opened its doors. Despite all its regulatory activity, the rate of most of these improvements is almost unchanged since the agency's inception. But is there any harm in the agency putting forth new rules? Yes, because to the extent that the EPA puts up barriers to creating wealth and inventing new, more efficient technologies, it actually slows the rate of improvement in air and water quality.
Earth Day is an appropriate time to reflect on humankind's relationship with nature. That relationship has been getting healthier because of, not despite, accelerating economic growth and significant population increases. The future will remain bright so long as people put innovation before regulation.
Ryan Young is Fellow in Regulatory Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), where Geoffrey McLatchey is a Research Associate. Follow CEI on Twitter at @ceidotorg.
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