Archived: A Free Market Appreciation for Earth Day


This Earth Day we are reminded of the value of environmental protection. Clean air, clean water, species protection, and pristine wilderness are items we all value. The United States, relative to most of the world, is exceptionally blessed with each of these environmental goods. This Earth Day we should all celebrate the single most important factor in making all these environmental goods possible: the free market.

Only a wealthy society can afford the economic sacrifices necessary to put expensive scrubbers on smokestacks, to build and maintain the infrastructure necessary to sustain clean waterways, and to set aside productive lands for conservation and species protection. And the wealthiest nations are those that respect and nurture market freedom.

When the Obama administration earlier this month imposed new fuel economy mandates on automakers that, according to the administration itself, will raise the cost of the average new vehicle by nearly $1,000, it was our national wealth that enabled us to even consider such a financial imposition. By contrast, citizens of nations that have historically stifled economic freedom—China, India, etc.—cannot afford the expensive clean-air technologies that Americans purchase as a matter of course.

How stark is the difference in environmental quality between nations that encourage the market and those that stifle it? A study published in the January issue of the science journal Nature documents that so much pollution from Asia is crossing the Pacific Ocean that U.S. ozone levels are rising even though U.S. ozone precursor emissions are declining. States in the Western United States are having difficulty meeting federal ozone standards because pollution from relatively poor nations in East Asia is offsetting declines in U.S. emissions.

For nations such as China, India, Bangladesh, Laos, and Vietnam—each languishing in the bottom third of The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom World Rankings—imposing expensive environmental mandates on citizens who cannot afford food, clothing, and shelter is not an option. Western-style environmental protections first require Western-style wealth. And Western-style wealth was made possible, and will remain possible, only through free markets and economic liberty.

This Earth Day we will hear a great deal of talk about global environmental problems, and many of them are real. Yet we in the United States are benefitting from a great boom in environmental quality. We are in the middle of a Roaring ‘20s of environmental improvement.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, aggregate U.S. emissions today of the six principal pollutants tracked by EPA total less than half what they were in 1980. This astonishing reduction in pollution occurred even though the U.S. population jumped by 34 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased by 91 percent, and gross domestic product more than doubled.

If we compare current air quality to 1970—the year Earth Day was first celebrated—the results are even more striking. Aggregate U.S. emissions have declined by 60 percent, even as the U.S. population surged by 48 percent, vehicles miles traveled rose by 163 percent, and gross domestic product more than tripled.

While U.S. politicians debate the extent to which mercury, sulfur, and other pollutants should be scrubbed from modern power plant emissions, people in Asia and Africa burn dung to cook their food and heat their homes. Dung patties may be a renewable and “sustainable” fuel source, but you will never find impoverished Third World citizens protesting plans for a new coal-fired power plant.

The extent to which current and future generations of Americans can afford environmental protections that are nonexistent in the rest of the world will depend primarily on the extent to which our government allows free markets to flourish. More intrusive government regulations, higher taxes, and penalties on financial success may be motivated by good intentions, but the real-world impact always has been, and always will be, to stifle economic growth and reduce the amount of societal wealth that can be devoted to environmental protection.
So this Earth Day, let’s remember to celebrate the environment’s best friend: the free market.

James M. Taylor ( is senior fellow for environment policy at The Heartland Institute.

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