Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Industrialization’s Staggering Effect on Humans

Don Boudreaux writes to the Washington Post:

Your recent photo-essay entitled “Humans’ staggering effect on Earth” – featuring pictures of the likes of crowded cities, debris in an ocean wave, and factory emissions – is from a new book entitled “Overdevelopment Overpopulation Overshoot.”  The intent, as revealed by the caption to the first of your series of photos, is to frighten viewers into believing that we are pointlessly destroying the environment with “materialism, consumption, pollution, fossil fuels and carbon footprints.”

This photo-essay is all emotion and no perspective.

Never mind that nearly half of the photos are from countries such as Brazil, Ghana, and Russia with poor records of protecting property rights and encouraging market activities that promote the modern industry, trade, and economic growth that the publishers of this book think are harmful.  Instead, consider running a follow-up photo-essay entitled “Industrialization’s staggering effect on humans.”  This photo-essay would feature full-color, hi-def pictures of benefits that would not exist without modern industrialization and global trade.  Photos, for example, of

– grandparents in Arizona smiling to reveal their own straight and gleaming white teeth (as opposed to the toothless gums of pre-industrial grandparents);

– the hard roof and solid floor of a middle-class home in London (as opposed to the dirt floors and thatched roofs of the flimsy huts that were the norm for most of human history);

– one of the central-heating ducts in that London home (as opposed to the sheep and goats that slept in pre-industrial families’ huts in order to help supply warmth for the family);

– a flush toilet in Marseilles (as opposed to a hole in the ground);

– antibiotic pills (as opposed to the dead bodies of children who were routinely killed by pneumonia or even by infections from simple cuts);

– an ordinary woman standing erect in jeans and a fashionable blouse in Vancouver (as opposed to a pre-industrial woman made stooped and hunched by malnutrition and dressed in drab and filthy homespun);

– a modern washing machine in Stockholm (as opposed to women carrying buckets of water from streams in order to do the laundry);

– a mother and father in Brooklyn surrounded by their three happy and healthy children (as opposed to the pre-industrial family in which the wife died while giving birth, one of the three children died of dysentery, and the still-surviving children with faces scarred by smallpox).

Such a list can be greatly extended.  Its point is to make clear that while economic growth isn’t costless, its benefits are easy to overlook precisely because they are today so common.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

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