Capitalism and Clean Air

Published August 4, 2008

Beginning on August 8 and lasting through to August 24, the world’s best athletes will gather in China for the Summer Olympics. All eyes will be on China and, in particular, on Beijing. There is no question that China, having shed the bad old days of Mao’s failed communism in favor the capitalism, has been rapidly emerging as a world power.

In the effort to catch up with the West, China has been engaged in the provision of as much electrical energy as possible and that has meant the building of numerous coal-fired plants. The equation is easy enough to understand; no energy, no progress. And China, these days, is all about progress.

America, of course, has always been about progress, but recognizing that the pollution of our rivers and lakes, and of the air we breathe was too great a price to pay, in 1970 Congress authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The improvement of U.S. air and water quality is the envy of the world.

The news out of Beijing these days is all about air quality. And it’s bad. By late July Beijing officials had put in place what the Associated Press called “a series of drastic pollution controls since July 20 that included pulling half of the city’s 3.3 million vehicles off the roads, halting most construction, and closing some factories in the capital and surrounding provinces.”

The Olympic Games will bring 10,500 athletes to Beijing and are expected to attract hundreds of thousands of spectators. The city’s air pollution index for particulate matter, a major pollutant, was in the 90s and has been much higher. An API below 50 is considered good air quality and between 51 and 100 is regarded as moderate.

In July 2007, National Geographic News reported that, “China, the world’s fastest growing economy, has earned another startling superlative: the highest annual incidence of premature deaths triggered by air pollution, according to a new study” by the World Health Organization. WHO estimated that outdoor air pollution kills 656,000 Chinese citizens each year and its drinking water was responsible for another 95,600 deaths.

The headlines about China’s air and water pollution problems reminded me of a book, “Education and Capitalism”, written by Joseph Bast and Herb Walberg, and published in 2003. The great “enemy” of environmentalists and socialists of every stripe has always been America’s corporations and, by extension, capitalism.

“The record clearly shows environmental conditions are improving in every capitalist country in the world and deteriorating only in non-capitalist countries,” wrote the book’s authors. Only affluent nations can afford to protect their environmental conditions. By way of example, total air pollution emissions in the United States fell 34 percent between 1970 and 1990. Particulate matter emissions fell by 60 percent, sulfur oxides by 25 percent, carbon monoxide by 40 percent, and lead by 96 percent,

The book’s authors noted that “Total emissions of air pollutants tracked by the EPA are forecast to fall by 22 percent between 1975 and 2015.” Water pollution has decreased dramatically throughout the U.S. Sport fishing has returned, for example, to all five of the Great Lakes.

There is a critical reason why capitalism favors a cleaner environmental. “The security of personal possessions made possible by the capitalist institution of private-property rights is a key reason why capitalism protects the environment,” said the book’s authors. When you own property investing in improvements increases its long-term value. “Markets, the second capitalist institution, tend to increase efficiency and reduce waste by putting resources under the control of those who value them most highly.”

In 2000 the cost of complying with environmental regulations was approximately $267 billion. That’s nearly $2,000 for every household in America. “Only a capitalist society can afford to spend so much,” wrote Bast and Walberg.

This is not to argue that all environmental regulations are a good idea. Some like the Endangered Species Act exist solely to thwart any development anywhere and to attack entire industries such as timber or mining. Other environmental regulations routinely seek to undermine ranching and farming.

Constant environmental and governmental efforts to sequester vast areas of the nation from access to our natural resources are a growing area of contention.

The Olympic Games will provide entertainment to billions around the world, but the untold story of the games will be the triumph of capitalism.

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center, He blogs daily at