Profits And Pollution


Dr. Davis is Associate Professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts. This article is from the manuscript of a forthcoming book, A Land of Milk and Honey: Biblical Foundations of the Free Market.

“Man is poisoning his world,” declares science writer Joseph Myler. “He has been labelled, with strong justification, the dirty animal.” According to Myler, man has “. . . managed to make his rivers rotten. He has transformed green pastures into deserts. He has clogged the air with chemicals which menace health and dust which is changing the climate. He is a menace to himself and other species.”

Such a litany of environmental woes has become familiar to anyone living in twentieth-century America. In many cases the unspoken assumption is made that industrial capitalism inevitably produces insoluble problems of pollution. While such a perspective points to matters of genuine concern for anyone living in the modern world, such constructions also have their own limitations. All too often such descriptions lack a sense of proper historical perspective, tend to exaggerate the magnitude of the problem, and frequently ignore signs of significant improvement.

Popular discussions of environmental problems tend to give the impression, for example, that pollution is a completely man-made and modern phenomenon, a creature of the industrial age. This is hardly the case. A single volcano can release as much dust into the atmosphere as several years’ industrial activity.[1] An average hurricane releases the energy of 100,000 hydrogen bombs. The ten million tons of man-made pollutants released in the atmosphere must be measured against the 1,600 million tons of methane gas emitted each year by natural swamps. Forests and other forms of vegetation discharge 170 million tons of various hydrocarbons into the atmosphere each year. These latter figures, cited by historian Paul Johnson in his book The Enemies of Society[2] do not mean that we should have no concern for the problems of industrial pollution. They do, however, provide a much needed check against magnifying such problems out of all due proportion.

Exaggerated Charges

Examples of exaggerated claims of environmental hazards are not difficult to find. Rachel Carson in her famous book Silent Spring alarmed the public with warnings about the allegedly devastating effects of chemical pesticides such as DDT. According to a special committee appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, such claims by Carson and other environmentalists were exaggerated. The special committee, appointed to advise the Environ mental Protection Agency, concluded that “the chronic toxicity studies on DDT have provided no indication that the insecticide is unsafe for humans when used in accordance with commonly recognized practice.”[3]

The agricultural scientist Norman E. Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on new strains of wheat which made the “green revolution” possible, gave the following testimony before a congressional committee in 1971: “It is a tragic error to believe that agri cultural chemicals are a prime factor in the deterioration of the environment. The indiscriminate cancellation, suspension, or outright banning of such pesticides as DDT is a game of dominoes we will live to regret.”[4] Similar sentiments are voiced by agriculture consultant William Boyd, who observed that “DDT has saved more lives, prevented more illness and protected more food, in the parts of the world where it is most needed, than any other chemical synthesized by man.”[5] While any chemical substance can be misused, the possible dangers of a pesticide such as DDT must be measured against the very real and quite vast benefits it has produced in the alleviation of human hunger and the saving of human lives. Environmental alarmism would endanger more lives than it seeks to protect.

After a bad oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel, Life magazine reported that the channel was “a sea gone dead.” Yet more careful studies by Dr. Dale Strangham found that such claims were exaggerated. There was no increase in mortality among whales or seals, and no ill effects on animal or vegetable plankton were detected. “Of 12,000 birds in the channel at the time of the spill, 3,500 to 4,000 died from all causes,” according to Strangham. “Yet by May,” he noted, “the bird population had risen to 85,000 because of seasonal migrations.”[6]

Recent studies in oceanography have indicated that the seas have greater powers to cleanse themselves than anyone had imagined a decade ago. “There was a view ten years ago that the ocean was a very fragile thing,” commented Derek Spencer, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts in a Newsweek interview. “The ocean,” he said, “has some important self-cleaning processes that we didn’t know about until recently.”[7] The dumping of industrial wastes must still be carefully monitored, but fears of the imminent “eco-death” of the world’s oceans seem to have faded.

An Unbalanced Picture

The reporting of environmental issues has focused on the “crises,” and has tended to ignore areas of genuine improvement. The result has been to leave an unbalanced picture of environmental realities in the public’s mind.

In a detailed article in Science, Prof. J. L. Simon of the University of Illinois called attention to the fact that the total acreage in the United States devoted to wildlife areas and state and national parks increased from 8 million acres in 1920 to 73 million acres in 1974. And despite fears among some environmentalists that the country’s open land is rapidly being turned into parking lots and shopping centers, it is still the case that all the land used for urban areas plus roadways amounts to less than three percent of the area of the United States. Lake Erie, pronounced environmentally dead some time ago by Barry Commoner, has improved significantly, and the fish catch is actually increasing.[8]

Substantial gains have been made in the area of air quality. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, many large industries, such as oil refineries and chemical plants, have already succeeded in controlling 90 to 95 per cent of their airborne emissions.[9]

The conventional wisdom assumes that greater energy use has led to a deterioration of the human environment. While there undeniably has been some environmental damage, such an analysis is far too simplistic and overlooks the positive gains. James A. Weber has pointed to the fact that greater energy use, by reducing the amount of dangerous and arduous work done by hu mans, has greatly reduced the occasions for fatal or disabling accidents. He notes that the National Safety Council has reported that “between 1912 and 1977 accidental deaths per 100,000 population were reduced 41

per cent from 82 to 48.”[10] These figures are all the more significant when one considers the dramatic increase in the use of automobiles during this period.

Life Expectancy

The most important single indicator of overall environmental quality is life expectancy. In the United States, life expectancy has continued to rise, and at an increasing rate, as Prof. Simon has pointed out. During the period 1970—1976, there was a gain of 2.1 years, compared with a gain of only 0.8 years during the entire decade of the 1960s.[11]

The “environment” includes not only air and water, but also sanitation, medical care, education, and working conditions. When twentieth century conditions in America are compared with those of a century ago, then the dramatic progress is apparent. The improved life expectancy figures bear witness to this improvement.

In all fairness it must be acknowledged that the environmental lobby is to be given credit for some of the progress made. At the same time, however, we have seen that a good deal of the “environmental. crisis” has been overplayed by the media, and the real environmental gains over looked. In any case, the contention that a growing free market economy inevitably destroys the environment is simply not supported by the facts.

A second major area of environmental concern involves the problem of resource depletion. Isn’t it the case that capitalism, predicated on continuing economic growth, threatens to deplete all the world’s resources?

Back in 1972, a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists in the headline- grabbing book Limits to Growth were sounding apocalyptic warnings: “Possibly within as little as 70 years, our social and economic system will collapse unless drastic changes are made very soon.” The implication was that either the capitalistic system or economic growth or possibly both would have to be abandoned in order to avoid environmental and social catastrophe. The MIT scientists have since dramatically revised their predictions, but the impression lives on that our resources are in imminent danger of running out.

There are at least four major weaknesses in the “resource depletion—no growth” type of argument against the free market system. In the first place, history has shown that past estimates of resource reserves have tended to be notoriously inaccurate. A 1944 survey indicated that by 1973 the United States would have exhausted its supplies of tin, nickel, lead, and manganese.[12] In fact, however, more deposits of these metals were discovered in the United States than during the previous 25 years. Progress in mining and refining technology has made possible the recovery of copper from ore that only a decade ago was worthless rock.

A 1918 estimate at the site of the Climax molybdenum mine placed reserves at six million tons of ore. “Since then,” noted an article in the Wall Street Journal, “426 million tons have been extracted. And today there are still 433 million tons of proven ore reserves down there.”[13]

In 1975 the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that natural gas reserves were in danger of running out shortly after the year 2000. Since then, deregulation of the industry and new computer-assisted exploration techniques have dramatically altered the picture. New discoveries of natural gas in the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Gulf Coast, and in Wyoming and Utah, have led some scientists to predict that known natural gas reserves can take the United States well into the twenty-first century, and possibly even to the end of it.[14]

Petroleum Supplies

Events of recent years, especially the rise of the OPEC oil carte], have focused the public’s attention on our supplies of petroleum. Here again, estimates of known reserves have been wide of the mark. In 1942 estimates of world reserves of crude oil were placed at 600 billion barrels. In 1970, geologists at Mobil were estimating two trillion. In 1973, Peter Odell, reporting in the Geographic Journal, was estimating a resource base of four trillion barrels by the year 2000.[15]

Part of the problem lies in an inadequate definition used by the U.S. Geological Survey, according to Dr. Joseph Barnea, a former director of natural resource studies at the United Nations. The Wall Street Journal editorial citing Dr. Barnea notes that the Survey defines crude oil as “a natural mixture of hydrocarbons occurring underground in a liquid state in porous-rock reservoirs and remaining in a liquid state as it flows from a well at atmospheric pressure.” According to Bar-nea, this definition excludes perhaps 85 percent of the crude oil that can be brought up under pressure, plus all non-liquid petroleum found in tar sand and oil shale deposits. The result is that many published reports concerning recoverable oil overlook much of the oil actually in place. “There are plenty of hydrocarbons to last until solar power comes in,” the editorial concludes, “so long as we will pay the cost of retrieving them.”[16]

A second weakness in many of the more apocalyptic analyses of resource depletion is that they tend to overlook the normal workings of the law of supply and demand. Rising prices for a commodity tend to keep demand in check. And, note William J. Baumol and Wallace Oates of Princeton, higher prices also provide increased incentives to recover and recycle used resources.[17]

Since the quadrupling of oil prices of the OPEC cartel, oil consumption in the U.S. and other countries has been decreasing sharply. Fred Singer, a professor of environmental science, noted that throughout the world “oil is being replaced wherever possible by cheaper fuels . . . These shifts, coupled with conservation, will cut world consumption of oil in half by the next decade.”[18] Singer expects North America to become essentially self-sufficient in oil, with hardly any imports needed from overseas producers.

Changing Conditions

Predictions of imminent depletion of minerals and energy frequently overlook the significance of changing patterns of work. By the mid-1970s America’s work force had experienced a remarkable transformation. More people were involved in the manipulation of information than were employed in mining, agriculture, manufacturing, and personal services combined. In fact, according to futurologist Alvin Toffler, only nine per cent of the American population (20 million workers) actually manufacture goods. The other 65 million workers provide services and manipulate symbols.[19] This dramatic trend toward an information and service-based economy means that economic growth and wealth are no longer primarily dependent on the direct extraction of resources from the ground. The burgeoning field of microcomputers is a prime example of how new jobs and income can be generated from new ideas and human creativity without destroying the environment.

Pessimistic forecasts concerning resource availability do not take adequate account of the dramatic new gains in efficiency and productivity that are made possible through technological advances. While it is theoretically true that the earth’s resources are finite, the practical question is how finite, and whether or not the “limits to growth” have actually been reached. History shows that human imagination and inventiveness have again and again stretched those limits beyond what society thought possible.

Today, a single communications satellite can provide the intercontinental telephone connections that in an earlier day would have required thousands of tons of copper. In real terms, a new invention has increased the supply of copper available for alternate uses.

New Technologies

New technologies will be arriving during the 1990s, with great potential for dramatically altering the worlds of work and leisure. It is expected that by 1990 computers will be one hundred times faster than today’s most powerful models. A single thumbnail-sized silicon chip will be capable of holding not 65,000 bits of data, but 1,000,000. “Computers will be about the size of a basketball and will do more than today’s largest mainframes,” predicted William G. Howard, Jr. of Motorola’s Semiconductor Group in an interview with Business Week.[20]

New ceramics are being developed which will be ductile like metals, conduct electricity, and be much stronger and more durable than the products now available. These ceramics are made from metal oxides which constitute almost 90 per cent of the earth’s crust, thus assuring a virtually limitless supply of raw materials for the new products.

New techniques of corrosion control are being developed which could dramatically reduce the figure of $70-90 billion worth of damage done each year. New technology can thus mean entirely new plateaus for the conservation of goods and resources.[21]

In the field of biotechnology, exciting new developments are in the offing. Researchers have created new varieties of bacteria that can convert industrial feedstocks into sugar and turn wood wastes into alcohol. By the 1990s these new processes could represent new multibillion dollar industries.

Significant new breakthroughs are on the horizon in the area of energy resources. Japan is already experimenting with floating platforms which generate electricity from wave power. Technology for converting garbage to fuel should become increasingly common. Within a decade cost-efficient photovoltaic cells which convert sunlight directly into electricity should be commercially available for home use. One firm, Arco Solar, claims that it will be selling economical home-sized arrays by the mid-1980s.[22]

Even the scientists who published the pessimistic Limits to Growth in 1972 are now revising their former scenarios. In their latest book, Beyond the Age of Waste, these scientists now state that “nuclear energy alone is capable of supplying four times the present world population with twice the current U.S. level of per capita energy consumption.” Solar and geothermal will add to the energy mix and substitutes can be found for the few raw materials which may be really scarce. Beyond the Age of Waste represents a remarkable turnaround from the dire predictions of 1972.

Bad News Tends to Conceal the More Hopeful Outlook

If there are indeed some legitimate grounds for a hopeful outlook on the world’s energy and resource future, why does so much “bad news” abound in this area? This provocative question has been both raised and given some possible answers by Prof. Julian Simon. Some groups and individuals have, in effect, a vested interest in the dissemination of gloom-and-doom scenarios. “Bad news sells books, newspapers, and magazines,” notes Simon; “good news is not half as interesting.” Is it any wonder, he asks, that there are plenty of best-sellers warning about pollution, population growth, and natural-resource depletion, but few telling the facts about environmental improvement? What John Maddox has called the “doomsday syndrome” has spawned a profitable growth industry in America.

Sociologist Peter Berger has described the growth of the “New Class” in America, a class comprising many in the media, the universities, and government agencies. The New Class has a vested interest in environmental “bad news.” Each new crisis helps to sell air time, create demand for new books, justify new studies and research grants, and new rules and regulations which increase the power of bureaucrats employed in government agencies. Members of the New Class, Berger notes, tend to be hostile toward the idea of economic growth and toward the business community in general.[23]

Apart from any vested interests involved, some environmentalists may be prone to paint darker pictures than the facts really warrant out of a desire to mobilize individuals and institutions to action. In the long run, however, such “crying wolf” will lead to a serious loss of credibility for the legitimate concerns of environmental stewardship. As Philip Handler, then president of the National Academy of Sciences once commented, “The nations of the world may yet pay a dreadful price for the public behavior of scientists who depart from . . . fact to indulge . . . in hyperbole.”[24]

The Christian will certainly heed the legitimate warnings concerning possible threats to the environment, and will be supportive of efforts to conserve the world’s resources. At the same time, in light of the biblical covenant of dominion given in Genesis, the Christian community should seek to combine an ethic of conservation with one of creativity and innovation. As image bearers of God, men and women are endowed with creative minds that can invent new processes and devices that can produce a richer life for all. “No growth” mentalities harm those who most need the fruits of new productivity, namely the impoverished peoples of the underdeveloped na tions. The biblical ethic of environ-mental stewardship challenges the Christian community to combine conservation and productivity, and to face the problems of the present with realism, while looking to the future with faith and courage and hope. []

1.   John Maddox, The Doomsday Syndrome (1972), p. 140.

2.   Paul Johnson, The Enemies of Society (1977), pp. 91, 92.

3.   Maddox, op. cit., p. 131.

4.   Ibid., p. 137.

5.   World Research Ink, Nov./Dec. 1979, p. 17.

6.   Ibid.

7.   Newsweek, Aug. 31, 1981, p. 68.

8.   J. L. Simon, Science, June 27,1980, pp. 143137.

9.   Los Angeles Times, Aug. 21, 1978, in World Research Ink, Nov./Dec. 1979, p. 18.

10.   James A. Weber, The Freeman, April, 1981, p. 199.

11.   Simon, op. cit., p. 1436.

12.   Newsday, Aug. 28, 1981, p. 62.

13.   Wall Street Journal, June 23, 1981, p. 53.

14.   James Miller, Reader’s Digest, April, 1981, pp. 65-71.

15.   Wall Street Journal, Sept. 14, 1977, p. 22.

16.   Ibid.

17.   William J. Baumol and Wallace E. Oates, Economics, Environmental Policy and the Quality of Life (1979), p. 107.

18.   Newsweek, May 18, 1981, p. 33.

19.   Boston Globe, May 12, 1981, p. 23.

20.   Business Week, July 6, 1981, pp. 48-52, 56.

21.   Ibid.

22.   MotherEarth News, July/Aug. 1981, p. 124.

23.   Peter Berger, Worldview, April, 1978, p. 10.

24.   In Simon, op. cit., p. 1437.

The Ecological Panic

I well remember when Rachel Carson’s work, The Silent Spring, first appeared in The New Yorker, and the surprise and concern it rightly aroused. We were tending to ignore some of the destructive side effects of very rapid industrial expansion. The wave of concern that followed was justified, and the steps then taken, notably the clean air policies, and the policies for cleansing lakes and waterways have been spectacularly successful. Thanks to smokeless fuel, London fogs, which were real killers, have been virtually eliminated. The last really serious London fog was in 1952. The Thames is now cleaner, and has greater quantities of fish, and more varieties in it, than at any time since before the days of Spenser or Shakespeare. Similar successes are now being registered in the U.S., which adopted such legally enforceable remedies somewhat later than Britain did. These are examples of what can be done by thoughtful, unemotional, systematic and scientifically justified application of conservation and anti-pollution policies.

Paul W. Johnson,
“Has Capitalism a Future?”


June 1982

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