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Dead Wrong: Rich is Green

Video | Environment & Pollution

Dead Wrong: Rich is Green

In rich countries, we buy more, we travel anywhere, and the planet pays the price. It’s obvious that the richer we get, the more we damage the environment. Dead wrong.

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

Study Finds Economic Prosperity is Associated With a Cleaner Environment

Higher living standards and ecological responsibility are two interrelated byproducts of human progress.

Summary: It is often assumed that economic prosperity leads to environmental degradation, but a new study challenges this view. Using data from 180 countries over 20 years, the study finds that higher levels of income per capita are associated with lower levels of air pollution and deforestation. This article explores the possible explanations and implications of this finding for environmental policy and human well-being.

The climate activist and Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year Greta Thunberg made the following remark at the 2019 U.N. Climate Action Summit,

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

Thunberg’s remarks are riddled with generalizations and exaggerations, but the main thrust of her argument is the most troubling one because it is fundamentally false. According to the activist, there is a negative relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. That assertion has little basis in reality. On the contrary, economic progress enhances our ability to be good stewards of our planet.

The Environmental Performance Index 

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a joint project of the Yale Center for Environmental Policy and Law and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University. The index has been a leading resource on accessing environmental protection in individual countries for over 20 years.

The latest 2020 edition ranks 180 countries based on metrics, such as air quality, ecosystem vitality, environmental health, drinking water, CO2 emissions, etc. However, what stands out about the 2020 edition is its conclusion: 

Good policy results are associated with wealth (GDP per capita), meaning that economic prosperity makes it possible for nations to invest in policies and programs that lead to desirable outcomes. This trend is especially true for issue categories under the umbrella of environmental health, as building the necessary infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and sanitation, reduce ambient air pollution, control hazardous waste, and respond to public health crises yields large returns for human well-being.

Furthermore, the report notes that although urbanization and industrialization can lead to increased pollution (especially in developing countries), tradeoffs between environmental protection and economic growth can be greatly mitigated by sound policy. For example, “commitment to the rule of law, a vibrant press, and even-handed enforcement of regulations – have strong relationships with top-tier EPI scores.” That’s because open governments allow for greater public scrutiny, whereas dictatorial governments, like the former Soviet Union, can silence their critics and continue destroying the environment unimpeded.

Provided below are the top five EPI-ranked countries in each region of the world. Each country’s EPI ranking is accompanied by that country’s global gross domestic product (GDP) per person ranking. Also included are the top five worst-performing countries. The EPI ranking is on a scale from 1 to 180, with 1 being the best and 180 being the worst. The GDP per capita ranking is provided by the World Data Atlas for the year 2020 in current U.S. dollars. The scale goes from 1, which is the highest GDP per capita, to 192, which is the lowest GDP per capita. 

Below is a regression table plotting countries based on their GDP per capita and their total EPI score. As can be seen, there is a strong correlation between a country’s wealth and its EPI score.

Source: 2020 Environmental Performance Index 

Also provided are the factors considered when accessing an aggregate EPI score.

Source: 2020 Environmental Performance Index, methodology for each category outlined in the full report.


The relationship between better environmental performance scores and GDP per capita is quite intuitive. The first major reason being that environmentally friendly technology, cleanup operations, and ecological stewardship are expensive. Richer societies can afford to divert more resources to protecting the environment, while poorer societies tend to be more concerned with meeting basic living standards.

For example, in countries like the United States, it is standard to cook food with natural gas-powered or electric stoves. Those are far cleaner and safer than the alternatives commonly found in poorer societies. For example, Aaron Steinberg from the Council on Foreign Relations noted in 2019 that in India, around 78 percent of residents still use biomass for cooking and heating. That number can go as high as 90 percent in India’s low-income regions and 52 percent worldwide. Burning biomass, whether it be wood or, in many cases, dried dung, is extremely toxic and leads to millions of health complications every year. In fact, this is such a problem that increasing access to clean-burning stoves was a priority outlined in a 2014 United Nations report on sustainable energy.

Another example of the importance of advanced technology is the access to catalytic converters, which make it possible for automobile makers to lower car emissions to comply with the U.S. National Emission Standards Act. Such components are expensive, as are other environmentally friendly products, such as renewable energy, organic food, public transportation systems, smart grids, and so on.

The EPI report also notes that although industrialization can lead to increased pollution, the latter can be mitigated by a strong rule of law, a vibrant civil society, and a prudent as well as accountable government. An arbitrary and corrupt government, in contrast, is not only bad for generating prosperity, but it is also likely to be a poor protector of the environment. Undermining of private property rights, for example, can incentivize poor ecological stewardship – as it did most recently in Zimbabwe and Venezuela. 

Key Takeaways 

The EPI report confirms what many have known for a while. Although industrialization and modernization may lead to increased pollution and emissions, economic prosperity also offers the tools needed to mitigate environmental damage. Greater access to green technology, better incentives for environmental stewardship, and the resources necessary to pursue environmental stewardship are all luxuries brought about by a prosperous society. A prudent and accountable government that upholds the rule of law is not only a better promoter of economic growth but also a better steward of the environment. Higher living standards and ecological responsibility are not two competing interests but two interrelated byproducts of human progress.

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

Pollution in Pre-Industrial Europe

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once described the River Thames as "a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors."

Last week, I wrote about Jason Hickel’s romantic idea that people in the past “lived well” with little or no monetary income. I noted that prior to the Industrial Revolution, clothing was immensely expensive and uncomfortable. The cotton mills changed all that.

As a French historian noted in 1846, “Machine production…brings within the reach of the poor a world of useful objects, even luxurious and artistic objects, which they could never reach before.”

Today, I wish to turn to pollution. It is well known that industrialization helped to pollute the environment, but that does not mean that air and water were clean before factories and mills came along! Compared to today, our ancestors had to endure horrific environmental conditions.

Let’s start with air quality. In the 17th century London, Claire Tomalin observed in Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, “Every household burnt coal … The smoke from their chimneys made the air dark, covering every surface with sooty grime. There were days when a cloud of smoke half a mile high and twenty miles wide could be seen over the city … Londoners spat black.”

In a similar vein, Carlo Cipolla in his book Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy 1000-1700, quotes from the diary of British writer John Evelyn, who wrote in 1661: “In London we see people walk and converse pursued and haunted by that infernal smoake. The inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick mist, accompanied by a fuliginous and filthy vapour … corrupting the lungs and disordering the entire habit of their bodies.”

The streets were just as dirty. John Harrington invented the toilet in 1596, but bathrooms remained rare luxuries two hundred years later. Chamber pots continued to be emptied into streets, turning them into sewers. To make matters worse, even large towns continued to engage in husbandry well into the 18th century. As Fernand Braudel noted in The Structures of Everyday Life, “Pigs were reared in freedom in the streets. And the streets were so dirty and muddy that they had to be crossed on stilts.”

Lawrence Stone observed in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 that “In towns in the eighteenth century, the city ditches, now often filled with stagnant water, were commonly used as latrines; butchers killed animals in their shops and threw the offal of the carcases into the streets; dead animals were left to decay and fester where they lay; latrine pits were dug close to wells, thus contaminating the water supply. Decomposing bodies of the rich in burial vaults beneath the church often stank out parson and congregation.”

A “special problem” in London, Stone wrote, was the “poor holes” or “large, deep, open pits in which were laid the bodies of the poor, side by side, row by row. Only when the pit was filled with bodies was it finally covered with earth.” As one contemporary writer, whom Stone quotes, observed, “How noisome the stench is that arises from these holes.” Furthermore, “great quantities of human excrement were cast into the streets at night … It was also dumped into on the surrounding highways and ditches so that visitors to or from the city ‘are forced to stop their noses to avoid the ill smell.’”

According to Stone, “The result of these primitive sanitary conditions was constant outbursts of bacterial stomach infections, the most fearful of all being dysentery, which swept away many victims of both sexes and of all ages within a few hours or days. Stomach disorders of one kind or another where chronic, due to poorly balanced diet among the rich, and the consumption of rotten and insufficient food among the poor.”

Then there was “the prevalence of intestinal worms,” which is “a slow, disgusting and debilitating disease that caused a vast amount of human misery and ill health … In the many poorly drained marshy areas, recurrent malarial fevers were common and debilitating diseases … [and] perhaps even more heart-breaking was the slow, inexorable, destructive power of tuberculosis.”

The situation was no better on the European mainland. In the middle of the 17th century, Queen Anne of Austria and mother of Louis XIV noted that “Paris is a horrible place and ill smelling. The streets are so mephitic that one cannot linger there because of the stench of rotting meat and fish and because of a crowd of people who urinate in the streets.”

In the 19th century, pollution remained a problem. In Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England, Judith Flanders noted Waldo Emerson’s observation that “no one … [in England] wore white because it was impossible to keep it clean.” According to Flanders, hair brushes looked “black after once using” and tablecloths were laid just before eating, “as otherwise dust settled from the fire and they became dingy in a matter of hours.”

In 1858, the stench from the River Thames was so bad that “the curtains on the river side of the building were soaked in lime chloride to overcome the smell”. The effort was unsuccessful, with Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once fleeing a committee room “with a mass of papers in one hand, and with his pocket handkerchief applied to his nose,” because the stench was so bad. He called the river “a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors.”

Keep in mind that even after the Industrial Revolution had begun, much of the pollution was still non-industrial. Henry Mayhew, an English social researcher and journalist, found that the Thames contained “ingredients from breweries, gasworks, and chemical and mineral manufactories; dead dogs, cats, and kittens, fats, offal from slaughterhouses; street-pavement dirt of every variety; vegetable refuse; stable-dung; the refuse of pig-styes; night-soil; ashes; tin kettles and pans … broken stoneware, jars, pitchers, flower-pots, etc.; pieces of wood; rotten mortar and rubbish of different kinds.”

There can be no doubt that industrialisation did great damage to the environment during the second half of the 19th century. But it also created wealth that allowed advanced societies to build better sanitation facilities, and spurred the creation of an enlightened populace with a historically unprecedented concern over the environment and a willingness to pay for its stewardship through higher taxation.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the BBC reported “more than 2,000 seals have been spotted in the Thames over the past decade … along with hundreds of porpoises and dolphins and even the odd stray whale … There are now 125 species of fish in the Thames, up from almost none in the 1950s.” Similarly, average concentrations of suspended particulate matter in London rose from 390 in 1800 to a peak of 623 in 1891, before falling to 16 micrograms per cubic meters in 2016. Today, air in the capital of the United Kingdom ranks as one of the cleanest among the world’s major cities.

Contemporary evidence clearly shows that the lives of many Western Europeans before industrialisation were, at least by today’s standards, deeply unpleasant. It would be a stretch to conclude that they have “lived well.”

This first appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

How Human Ingenuity Can Protect the Environment

Many people feel pessimistic about the state of the environment. Here's why you shouldn't.

How human ingenuity protects the environment

Many people feel pessimistic about the state of the environment. But there are also many who hold a more optimistic view, believing that human ingenuity can help preserve the environment. The latter view is sometimes called “enlightenment environmentalism” or “ecomodernism.” HumanProgress advisory board member and Rockefeller University professor Jesse H. Ausubel, who was integral to setting up the world’s first climate change conference in Geneva in 1979, has shown how technological progress allows nature to rebound. For example, by increasing crop yields to produce more food with less land, we can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. In fact, if farmers worldwide can reach the current productivity level of the average U.S. farmer, humanity will be able to return a landmass the size of India back to nature. Ausubel envisions a future where humanity is ever less dependent on natural resources.

In addition to technological progress, economic development can also help protect the Earth. As people escape extreme poverty and spend less time and energy on the basics of survival, they often come to care more about environmental stewardship. The incredible decline in Chinese poverty spurred by economic liberalization, for example, has coincided with better preservation of forests. In the most recent year for which the World Bank has data, 2015, China had 511,807 more square kilometers of forest than it did in 1990. While it is true that worldwide forest area is slowly shrinking, the annual rate of deforestation has more than halved since the 1990s, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. That is because while forest area is still declining in the poorest areas of the world, forest area is also increasing in East Asia as well as wealthy Europe and North America. While the state of a country’s environment may worsen during the earlier stages of economic development, once a country reaches around $4,500 in GDP per capita, forest area starts to rebound. This is called the “forest transition” or, more broadly, the “environmental Kuznets curve.”

As for overpopulation, please see an overview of that topic here.

Environmental challenges should be taken seriously, but they are not a reason to lose hope. Just as with so many other problems humanity has faced, environmental problems should be solvable given the right technology and spreading prosperity.

This first appeared in Quora.