It’s evident that we have a problem with climate change and pollution. The world is heating up, we’re losing species, and plastics plague our oceans. These expansive problems are not easily solved, though we’ve been making significant strides towards alternative energy development, emission reduction and species conservation in recent years. Unfortunately, environmentalism is often used as a hammer by those who’d like to see our economic system radically changed. If only we could overthrow capitalism, the reasoning often goes, we’d stop exploiting our Earth for profits! Sometimes, these arguments are ostensibly pragmatic: radical problems require radical solutions. At other times, they are moralistic calls to rectify what some see as a terrible transgression against the Earth. This is wrongheaded. Free-market capitalism is the solution, rather than the problem. Although environmentalism is a laudable and necessary movement, it would be a dire mistake to let it turn anti-capitalist—or, worse, anti-human.
Capitalism contributes to pollution insofar as human development does. As free markets raise developing nations out of poverty, pollution increases dramatically. Factories are built and coal is burnt. This leads people to believe that capitalist business practices are responsible for damage to the environment. While this is partially true, it’s blinkered to argue that we’d be better off without capitalism. Pollution is a side effect of development, an inevitable consequence of the progress of man. That doesn’t mean nothing should be done about it—but impoverished people do not have the luxury of caring about pollution when they have barely enough food to eat. But as these nations become developed and prosperous through free markets, the pollution spike that accompanies development first peaks and then starts to decline. This is partly a result of market demands. Consumers, now wealthy enough to have their basic needs reliably met, can turn their attention to larger concerns like pollution. They don’t want to patronize companies that make their neighborhood smell like soot. They can afford not to. Environmentalism is a privilege of the prosperous.
This restating of Maslow’s hierarchy often prompts accusations of environmental classism, since pollution disproportionately affects the impoverished. That is certainly true, but increased smog and depleted ozone are problems that pale when compared to the catastrophe of absolute poverty. The earth does not matter to you when your baby is starving—and environmentalism will do nothing to feed that child right now. Pollution is not the core problem. Poverty is the problem. By alleviating poverty, people are given the freedom to influence their environment. The idea that we should abrogate the best system for bringing people out of absolute poverty is short-sighted at best.
Of course, in a developed country, pollution will not drop below the levels present in its previously undeveloped and less populated state. This is where the anti-capitalist sentiment often turns anti-human. Yes, we would have less climate change if we all lived in pre-industrial, undeveloped squalor. If you didn’t have the luxuries of capitalism—no car, no electricity, no indoor heating and no plastics—you would pollute very little. This unreasonable fantasy should be treated with caution. We would pollute even less, the logic follows, if we were all dead.
Here’s a genocidal hypothetical: imagine that the entire populations of the United States, China and India were wiped out tomorrow. By eliminating the world’s three most egregious environmental transgressors, we would cut global emissions by less than half. Even this, by many estimates, is not enough to sufficiently attenuate climate change. Civilization would continue its supposed death march to oblivion—at the cost of three billion lives.
So where do we go from here? Individual responsibility plays a role. We should recycle, take public transportation, use refillable water bottles and buy pomade instead of hairspray. We shouldn’t burn tires or shop at businesses whose environmental practices are reprehensible. But these measures can only go so far, especially when much of the world is too impoverished to care. The primary solution is innovation. Solar technology, for example, is developed by private companies in competition with each other, each innovating to create better and more affordable products. This is the same process that creates new smartphones and pioneering medical treatments. It’s the capitalist economic system that rewards entrepreneurs for solving problems and fulfilling market demands. The only reason people drive electric cars in America is because a capitalist called Elon Musk produced an excellent product. This would not have been possible without the freedom to profit-seek and compete. However, Tesla has received significant subsidies from the US federal government, for which even a libertarian like myself can hardly fault Elon. He’s playing within the rules we’ve set. So what rules should we set?
There is a perfectly reasonable justification for the existence of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA should be responsible for regulating practices that create negative environmental externalities (things that affect neither the company nor the consumer directly), such as those created by a factory building cars for Los Angeles and dumping chemicals into Lake Michigan. Such an agency is likely necessary to protect the environment. We must find a balance, however, since any regulation that dampens the free market will dampen innovation and negatively impact the development of new technologies and products. If we simply attempt to regulate our industries into carbon neutrality, we’ll forgo the development of future technologies born of capitalism, which will undoubtedly fix the problem more effectively. Tomorrow’s equivalents of the electric car may be fully biodegradable plastics and atmospheric engineering.
It would be a catastrophic mistake to turn environmentalism over to the anti-capitalists. Under their guidance, the world would not only be less prosperous, but we would be completely kneecapped in the fight against climate change. You want the capitalists on your side. We could eliminate pollution by eliminating people, but we cannot—and should not—do that. Neither can we simply regulate the world into a carbon-neutral state. It’s in our best interests to unleash human potential by loosening the restraints on the free market, so we can watch as new technologies emerge that will improve the lives of all the species on this planet. Free market capitalism drives innovation—and innovation will save the world.