Richer is greener: environmentalists are Environmental Kuznets Curve deniers

The Kuznets environmental curve describes an empirical regularity between environmental quality and economic growth. Outdoor water, air and other pollution first worse and then improves as a country first experiences economic growth and development.

While many pollutants exhibit this pattern in the Kuznets environmental curve, peak pollution levels occur at different income levels for different pollutants, countries and time periods. John Tierney explains:

In dozens of studies, researchers identified Kuznets curves for a variety of environmental problems.

There are exceptions to the trend, especially in countries with inept governments and poor systems of property rights, but in general, richer is eventually greener.

As incomes go up, people often focus first on cleaning up their drinking water, and then later on air pollutants like sulphur dioxide.

As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources — from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy.

When I was living in Japan in the mid 1990s, they just completed a period of rapid operation of the Kuznets environmental curve. I was told by my professors at Graduate School that in the 1960s, cities and prefectures welcomed polluting industries because of the better paid jobs they offered. At that time, shipping companies used like to go to Tokyo because the pollution in Tokyo Bay was so bad that it would clean all the barnacles off their ships. That made them sail faster.

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Japanese incomes and wages doubled over the course of the 1960s. The Japanese voter was now prepared to support stricter pollution standards and environmental controls.

In the early 1970s, the ruling LDP stole the long-standing environmental policies of their opponents in a big crack down on pollution because the country could now afforded them.

Plenty of developing countries are democracies now. Their people could demand through the ballot box higher environmental standards and clean tap water but they don’t because of its cost to economic development.

The environmental movement lives in a state of denial regarding the relationship between economic growth and environmental quality.

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