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Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Cleaned by Capitalism

Capitalism Has Greatly Improved the Environment since the Industrial Age

I recently spoke in Toronto to students at a public-policy seminar sponsored by the Fraser Institute. The seminar opened with Fraser’s Laura Jones reviewing the many sound reasons why environmental alarmism is inappropriate. Ms. Jones offered superb analysis and boatloads of relevant facts. Her case that the environment is not teetering on the edge of disaster was unassailable—or so I thought.

During both the question-and-answer period and the group discussions that followed, the students vigorously assailed Ms. Jones’s case against command-and-control environmental regulation.

These assaults all sprang either from mistaken notions about environmental facts or from a lack of historical perspective.

As I listened to student after student lament the horrible filthiness of modern industrial society, my mind turned—as it often does—to the late Julian Simon. I remembered a point he made in the introduction to his encyclopedic 1995 book, The State of Humanity: almost all of the pollutants that have been most dangerous to humanity throughout history are today either totally eliminated or dramatically reduced. Here are Simon’s wise words:

When considering the state of the environment, we should think first of the terrible pollutants that were banished in the past century or so—the typhoid that polluted such rivers as the Hudson, smallpox that humanity finally pursued to the ends of the earth and just about eradicated, the dysentery that distressed and killed people all over the world.

Indeed so.

The fact that people today wring their hands with concern over the likes of global warming and species loss is itself a marvelous testament to the cleanliness of industrial society. People dying of smallpox or dysentery have far more pressing worries than what’s happening to the trend in the earth’s temperature. Truly, we today are lucky to be able to worry about the things that we worry about.

Our Polluted Past

I decided to work that last line into my own talk later in the day. I knew that declaring that our modern world is vastly cleaner than was the pre-industrial world would be met with astonishment, or even hostility, by the students. Such a claim contradicts all that they are taught. So I quickly assembled irrefutable facts to back my claim. Here’s my partial list of the myriad, mundane ways that modern society is unquestionably cleaner than pre-industrial society.

• As Simon pointed out, smallpox, dysentery, and malaria—once common threats to humankind—are today totally conquered in the industrial world. (Smallpox is no longer a threat even in the poorest parts of the world.) Antibiotics regularly protect us from many infections that routinely killed our ancestors.

• Before refrigeration, people ran enormous risks of ingesting deadly bacteria whenever they ate meat or dairy products. Refrigeration has dramatically reduced the “bacteria pollution” that constantly haunted our pre-twentieth-century forebears.

• We wear clean clothes; our ancestors wore foul clothes. Pre-industrial humans had no washers, dryers, or sanitary laundry detergent. Clothes were worn day after day without being washed. And when they were washed, the detergent was often made of urine.

• Our bodies today are much cleaner. Sanitary soap is dirt cheap (so to speak), as is clean water from household taps. The result is that, unlike our ancestors, we moderns bathe frequently. Not only was soap a luxury until just a few generations ago, but because nearly all of our pre-industrial ancestors could afford nothing larger than minuscule cottages, there were no bathrooms (and certainly no running water). Baths, when taken, were taken in nearby streams, rivers, or ponds—often the same bodies of water used by the farm animals. Forget about shampoo, clean towels, toothpaste, mouthwash, and toilet tissue.

• The interiors of our homes are immaculate compared to the squalid interiors of almost all pre-industrial dwellings. These dwellings’ floors were typically just dirt—which made the farm animals feel right at home when they wintered in the house with humans. Of course, there was no indoor plumbing. Nor were there household disinfectants, save sunlight. Unfortunately, because pre-industrial window panes were too expensive for ordinary families—and because screens are an invention of the industrial age—sunlight and fresh air could be let into these cottages only by letting in insects too. Also, bizarre as it sounds to us today, the roofs of these dwellings were polluted with all manner of filthy or dangerous things. Here’s the description by historians Frances and Joseph Gies, in Life in a Medieval Village, of the roofs of pre-industrial cottages:

Roofs were thatched, as from ancient times, with straw, broom or heather, or in marsh country reeds or rushes. . . . Thatched roofs had formidable drawbacks; they rotted from alternations of wet and dry, and harbored a menagerie of mice, rats, hornets, wasps, spiders, and birds; and above all they caught fire. Yet even in London they prevailed.
One consequence is described by French historian Fernand Braudel: “Fleas, lice and bugs conquered London as well as Paris, rich interiors as well as poor.” (See Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life.)

• Our streets are clean. Here, again, is Braudel, commenting on Parisian streets in the late-eighteenth century: “And chamber pots, as always, continued to be emptied out of windows; the streets were sewers.” Modern sewage disposal has disposed of this disgusting pollution. And that very symbol of twentieth-century capitalism—the automobile—has further cleaned our streets by ridding us of the constant presence of horse dung and of the swarms of flies it attracted.

• Consider, finally, a very recent victorious battle against pollution: toilets and urinals that automatically flush. Until a few years ago, every public toilet and urinal had to be flushed manually. Not so today. As automatic flushers replace manual flushers, we no longer must pollute our hands by touching filthy flush knobs.

These are just some examples of the countless ways that our ordinary lives are less polluted than were the ordinary lives of our ancestors. The danger is that people—like the students I met in Toronto—wrongly believe that the world is dirtier and less healthy today than in the past. And they blame capitalism. While some environmental problems still exist, they aren’t dire—and they are nowhere near as great as were the problems with filth that regularly harassed our grandparents and great-grandparents.

It is tragic that demagoguery fueled by misinformation leads people today to blame the free market for all real and imaginary environmental problems. In fact, the free market is the greatest cleanser and disinfectant of the environment—the most successful pollution fighter—that the world has ever known.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.