Myth: Capitalism is the most environmentally friendly economic system.
Fact: Non-industrial and regulated industrial systems are the most environmentally friendly.
This statement is more false than conservatives realize; non-industrialized countries actually have the cleanest environments. But among industrialized societies, Europe and Japan are cleaner than the U.S., which is cleaner than the former Soviet Union. Translated into systems, this means that well-regulated capitalist economies are cleaner than less regulated capitalist economies, which are cleaner than completely unregulated dictatorships. These last are considered unregulated because the officials in charge of production (the Soviet planners) were also their own regulators. Of course, the Soviet planners did not regulate themselves in their drive to catch up to Western levels of productivity, any more than Western polluters regulate themselves. A correlation thus emerges: the greater the regulation, the less the pollution.
The claim that capitalism is the most environmentally friendly economic system is false in more ways than one. The cleanest societies in the world are actually the non-industrial ones -- most of South America and Africa, for example. Where industry rises, pollution fills the air, water and land.
This would suggest that arguing over which type of industrial society is cleaner is much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. However, there is one hopeful development, and that is that most Western industrial societies are going through a period of deindustrialization. The percentage of workers employed in manufacturing jobs in capitalist countries has been falling for decades:
Employment in Manufacturing as a Percentage of Non-Agricultural Employment (1) Country 1970 1991 ---------------------------- United States 27% 17 Japan 33 27 Germany 40 33
The cause for this decline is twofold: consumers are demanding a higher
percentage of services over goods, and production efficiency is continually
improving. Production efficiency happened first in farming, where improvements
in technology boosted output so much that the number of American farmers
could decline 76 percent between 1941 and 1991, yet produce more food than
ever before. (2) The same thing is happening to the rest of industry. Robot
assembly lines have greatly boosted productive efficiency. Likewise, the
Internet allows a person to send messages instantly and electronically
instead of requiring a mailman to haul wood-based products in a gas-guzzling
truck. But this efficiency is a double-edged sword; we can use it to decrease
our workload and lessen the damage to the environment, or we can use it
to boost productivity to still higher levels that accelerate environmental
destruction. Which option society takes will demonstrate how enlightened
But as long as society remains industrialized to some degree, what type of economic system is friendliest? Conservatives point to the environmental devastation of the former Soviet Union as proof that socialism isn't it. And it is true, the former Soviet Union is by far more environmentally ravaged than the West. This goes well beyond Chernobyl, which will leave much of the Ukraine dangerous to inhabit for thousands of years. The Soviets drained two-thirds of the Aral Sea (one of the largest seas in the world) for irrigation, with disastrous results, including massive salt storms whenever the wind rises. In the highly centralized steel production city of Magnitogorsk, air pollution is so deadly that it is difficult to give birth to a live baby. No less than half of all recruits for military service are physically unfit for duty. The life expectancy of the average Russian male is 13 years lower than his American counterpart, and rapidly dropping. The once-fabled forests of Eastern Europe are dead, stripped of leaves and rotting away. How these nations are going to deal with their widespread environmental disasters is a mystery. Fortunately, the people themselves are aware of these problems, and there is a strong green movement in the former communist states.
Conservatives claim that socialism was so destructive to the environment because no one owned private property. "When no one owns private property, there is no incentive to keep it clean and pure because no one has a stake in keeping up its value," writes Rush Limbaugh. (3) According to this logic, however, America's national and public parks should be more polluted than private lands -- which they are not, because a large majority of the population reveres and protects our public parks. Furthermore, the American people have hired national park rangers to serve as custodians for these lands -- which refutes this conservative argument outright.
A more accurate reason why Soviet socialism was so environmentally destructive was because the regulator and the producer were the same entity: the Soviet government. Moscow itself was in control of production, and it regulated itself no better than any factory dumping pollution regulates itself. That is, there was no higher authority telling the Soviet planners that they couldn't pollute in their efforts to boost production. Contrary to what conservatives claim, the Soviet economy wasn't over-regulated; it wasn't regulated at all.
Needless to say, the top goal of the Soviet planners was to catch up to the West, and they thought they could sacrifice a part of their vast and seemingly infinite environment to obtain this goal. Also, the natural environment in Russia is a harsh one, filled with long, bitter winters and unproductive farmland. Russians have had a long tradition of viewing nature as the "enemy," one to be conquered by brute force just to be able to survive. Communist leaders from Lenin to Chernenko encouraged workers to vanquish nature as a superior method of survival.
In contrast to the unregulated Soviet economy, there are varying degrees of regulation in Western nations. By far, Europe and Japan are more heavily regulated than the U.S. And Europe and Japan are also cleaner than the U.S. (The statistics supporting these two observations will follow below.) What all these international examples show is that there is an elegant correlation between the amount of environmental regulation and the environmental health of industrialized nations.
Conservatives may find this conclusion outrageous, but even a domestic review of American history proves that government, not the free market, has been at the forefront of environmental protection. Every pro-environmental policy that the free market has ever adopted was forced upon it by government. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund, as well as the bans on asbestos, leaded gasoline, DDT, strip mining, aerial nuclear testing, and untreated waste dumping were all acts of congress, not business. Big business has never voluntarily sought to lower its profit margins to protect the environment. Every one of these laws had to be passed over the vehement opposition of business leaders and conservatives in congress.
The difficulty of arguing that "unfettered capitalism is green" can be seen in the following quote by Rush Limbaugh. Here, Rush describes industry's reaction to the Cuyahoga River, the notorious river that was so polluted it caught fire three times:
Government spending on pollution control (percent of GDP): Japan 1.17% Netherlands 0.95 Canada 0.89 Germany 0.78 Sweden 0.66 United Kingdom 0.62 United States 0.60 Norway 0.54 Finland 0.52 Percent of government R&D spent on the environment: Germany 3.4% Canada 2.2 Italy 1.9 United Kingdom 1.3 France 0.7 United States 0.5 Japan 0.4 Travel on public transportation as a percent of all travel: Japan 18% Finland 16 Denmark 15 Portugal 14 Germany 11 Norway 9 United Kingdom 8 Netherlands 8 United States 1 Annual air miles per person: United States 1,698 Canada 1,105 Netherlands 1,014 United Kingdom 902 Norway 829 Sweden 575 Finland 506 Denmark 476 Japan 425 Germany 344 Average price of a gallon of gas: Sweden $4.85 Denmark 4.46 United Kingdom 3.56 Germany 3.05 Netherlands 3.02 Japan 3.01 Canada 1.40 United States 1.07 Share of the world's energy use: United States 24.8% OECD/Europe 17.7 Japan 5.1 Energy Units of oil burned annually: United States 791.5 European Community 501.4 Japan 234.3 Germany 108.5 United Kingdom 81.3 Canada 80.4 Netherlands 24.1 Sweden 16.3 Finland 11.1 Norway 9.3 Denmark 9.0 Percent of all greenhouse gases emitted annually: (5) United States 21% Former USSR 14 European Community 14 China 7 Brazil 4 India 4 Rest of the world 36 Carbon dioxide released per person per year: United States 5.8 tons Canada 4.8 Germany 3.2 United Kingdom 2.9 Japan 2.2 OECD Europe 1.8 Total Carbon Monoxide emitted annually: United States 60,900 tons Canada 10,100 Germany 8,926 France 6,198 United Kingdom 5,264 Sweden 1,754 Netherlands 1,229 Norway 649 Switzerland 621 Total chlorofluorocarbons emitted annually: United States 332 million tons Japan 95 Germany 71 United Kingdom 67 Canada 34 Netherlands 17 Switzerland 10 Denmark 6 Finland 6 Sweden 4 Norway 1 Major oil spills (1976-89): United States 16 France 6 United Kingdom 5 Japan 4 Canada 2 Sweden 2 Finland 1 Germany 1 Forests cleared (thousands of cubic yards): United States 808,421 Canada 379,500 France 95,964 Sweden 84,612 Finland 72,864 Japan 57,272 Norway 14,810 United Kingdom 6,600 Acid rain (the lower the pH number, the worse the acidity): Japan 3.9 pH Sweden 4.1 United States 4.3 Canada 4.3 Norway 4.4 Denmark 4.5 Finland 4.5 Netherlands 4.9 United Kingdom 5.1 Energy Units of coal burned annually: United States 458.0 European Community 299.0 Germany 73.9 Japan 73.2 United Kingdom 64.0 Canada 27.6 Netherlands 8.1 Denmark 5.5 Finland 4.1 Sweden 2.5 Norway 1.0 Debris inhaled per person per year: United States 81 pounds Finland 44 Sweden 44 Europe 26 Netherlands 24 Germany 24 Denmark 20 Norway 15 United Kingdom 11 Japan 2 Waste per person per year: United States 1,637 pounds Canada 1,397 Netherlands 988 Denmark 931 Finland 898 Switzerland 843 United Kingdom 781 Japan 757 Germany 700 Sweden 697 France 598 Italy 579 Share of world's industrial waste: United States 31.6% OECD Europe 11.3 Eastern Europe 21.6 Japan 13.0 Percent of all glass recycled: Netherlands 50.3% Japan 49.6 Germany 41.2 Sweden 40.0 Denmark 31.0 Finland 30.0 United Kingdom 27.0 Norway 21.1 United States 20.0 Percent of all paper and cardboard recycled: Netherlands 62.0% Japan 54.4 Germany 37.0 Denmark 32.0 United Kingdom 13.0 United States 8.4
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1. Translated from graph from Paul Krugman, Peddling Prosperity, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 263.
2. Where We Stand, p. 157
3. Rush Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought To Be (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), pp. 157-8.
4. Limbaugh, p. 157.
5. NASA, IPCC Scientific Assessment of Climate Change, 1992.