🌈 America's Great Environmental Overcorrection
It's long past time to reform decades-old laws and regulations — and attitudes — that are now preventing us from building a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous country
The following will come as no surprise to regular Faster, Please! readers: I’m a conservative. More specifically, I’m a conservative of the American (a defender of classical liberalism) and Up Wing (a proponent of economic growth even with all its unwanted side effects and disruption) sort. That said, it might seem like I’m playing to form — or to a stereotype — when I kvetch about the anti-growth/build/progress aspects of environmental regulation.
But please, dear readers, do not reflexively dismiss my kvetching. I care about the natural world around me — which should not be surprising given that I live in a wealthy nation. It’s a common phenomenon: At a certain level of affluence — one America is well beyond — people start assigning a greater value to clearer skies and cleaner water. They become more willing to accept the possible trade-offs, such as costlier energy or pricier consumer products, that come with government making pollution reduction a greater priority. And in the US, there were other factors as well that influenced public opinion in the immediate post-war decades. As Thomas P. Hughes writes in American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970:
The increasing awareness of the destructiveness of atom bombs and the threat that their proliferation posed for the future of civilization greatly stimulated among the public a counter-reaction to technology. … Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring called attention to the loss of natural, sounds, smells, and vistas as the man-made systems of production, with their toxic substances, displaced nature. … A series of destructive offshore oil spills and smog alerts in polluted cities served as graphic reminders of the vulnerability of the natural and urban environments. The use by the U.S. military … of capital- and managerial- intensive technological systems to lay waste Vietnam only in heightened the public’s anger toward, and anxieties about, technology. Thoughtful Americans could no longer glibly associate technology with incandescent lamps, Model T’s, and “better things for better living.”
And thus government took action. One of the more interesting analyses about the relationship between economic growth and environmental regulation can be found in the 2019 working paper “Long-Run Environmental Accounting in the U.S. Economy” by Carnegie Mellon University economist Nicholas Z. Muller. The piece attempts to adjust economic growth rates for the decline in environmental damage from air pollution. Muller notes that “air pollution intensity declined precipitously from the 1950s to the modern era.”
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