Economic development protects the environment

This article is available in Bulgarian.

Interview with Boyan Rashev at Off News

At the yearly European Students for Liberty conference you will speak about cleaning up the air using the free market. Isn’t this a paradox? We all know that regulations fight pollution created by the free market.

Unfortunately there are two very widespread myths on this subject. The first one is related to air pollution – people believe that as humanity develops, the air becomes increasingly dirty. Actually, polluted air became widespread with the discovery of fire. We spend 80-90% of our time indoors where the presence of burning fire determines the quality of the air we breathe.

In reality we started to get cleaner air from the moment humanity discovered and began using electricity. The same can be said about outdoor air quality – the more solid fuel burning that takes place, the worse pollution tends to be. The most developed nations with the freest markets enjoy the cleanest air, which is a new development in history. The only exceptions are found in countries with a large proportion of diesel vehicles, which is the case in Europe. And here we come to the second myth on the subject – people believe that regulations keep the air clean. Not exactly – it was precisely the green politics of Europe that stopped the improvement of air quality because they led to the widespread use of diesel vehicles. This is nothing less than a reversal of the natural path of development that leads us from clean to dirtier fuels.   

Isn’t the lack of govenrment regulations responsible after all? If everyone does as they please, then why not use wood for heating? We all like to get warm around the fireplace…

As I understand it, there is a significant difference between “everyone does as they please” and the “free market”. For me individual freedom is sacred, but this means that I can’t use my own freedom to harm or take away the freedom of others. The case of air pollution is a classic one – if I burn solid fuels at home, my emissions will harm many people in Sofia, eroding their freedom by making them sick. The pollution that I produce personally is small, but when numerous other people do the same we begin to harm each other. The principle of non-harm to others’ freedom requires polluters to compensate those they have affected – in the conditions of a country where laws are respected and personal property is protected, this should lead to an increase in the cost of solid fuels and a reduction in their use.  

The other mechanism through which the free market leads to the preservation of the environment is economic development. This effect is most powerful where the markets are most free and people are respectively richer. When their basic needs like food, shelter and safety are met, people naturally begin to seek other things such as a clean and protected environment, which they can also afford. It’s nice to say that we need to transition from coal to gas, but we also have to be able to pay for it. This is what happens to the most developed countries in the world.   

You are saying that economic development protects the enviroment instead of destroying it?

Where do you think the health and quality of the environment is better – Switzerland or Bulgaria? Do you know what has happened to the air quality in Athens and Thessaloniki since the economic crisis in Greece began? And this effect of environmental improvement doesn’t only affect the air, water and waste. The developed world has many more forests and protected areas in comparison to the middle of the 20th century. The ranges and populations of practically all protected animals – birds and mammals – are much larger today than in the past. The same is true for Bulgaria.

The continued growth in consumption can’t go on forever, can it? At some point resources will run out.

This might be the most deeply entrenched myth in the minds of people. Humanity just can’t seem to believe that it can continue progressing – everything always has to have a fatal end. The world was supposed to end in 2012 – wasn’t that the Mayan prediction?

The serious answer to this question is very long. Think about it, can you name a non-renewable resource that humanity has exhausted on a global level? There isn’t one. In addition, the reserves of all major resources – fuels, metals, minerals, water and food are all growing, while the quality of the environment is improving all over the world. 

All of this is happening not in spite of, but thanks to the growth in population, consumption of resources and increased wealth. Population and wealth growth cause an increase in demand for manufactured goods, which leads to resource shortages and pollution. These shortages drive prices up, while pollution leads to social demands for a cleaner environment. All of this creates opportunities for inventors and investors to come u with innovative solutions. These innovations lead to higher standards of living than we had before the problems began. New or alternative resources are discovered, prices fall, pollution decreases. More people can live better lives.  

This only woks in the conditions of maximum market freedom – in other words, if we don’t want the end of the world to come, we must be free to find innovative solutions. This is the real mechanism that drives sustainable development in the world – everything else that uses the term comes down to political slogans.  

You are saying that sustainable development is possible with continued population growth?

Yes, my claim is that population growth is a prerequisite of development. I will take it even further. The rate of growth of the world population is slowing very rapidly. In 2012 we reached “peak child” – the year in which the most children ever were born on Earth. Since then less and less children have been born with each passing year. In the 2040-2050 period we will reach the maximum number of people and then the world population will begin to decline. I believe that the greatest challenge facing humanity is our aging population and the coming decrease in population. But these are just theories – no one can prognosticate these trends very far into the future.

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