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2008 01 23
Technology Versus The Environment

"Lies, damn lies, and statistics” goes the often quoted phrase, and it is never more appropriate than when used as a rough description of the battle for the environmental high ground. Statistics are used by both sides in the struggle for public opinion to persuade, cajole, and even intimidate. Recently though, Arik Levinson of Georgetown University released a study showing that American manufacturers increased production by 70% while, simultaneously, reducing the production of primary pollutants by 58%. For advocates of free market responses to the environmental crisis, this study is becoming the holy grail—an illustration that markets can change without wholesale government intervention.

Mr. Levinson concludes:

If the 75% reduction in pollution from US manufacturing resulted from increased international trade, the pundits and protestors might have a case. Environmental improvements might be said to have imposed large, unmeasured environmental costs on the countries from which those goods are imported. And more importantly, the improvements in the US would not be replicable by all countries indefinitely, because the poorest countries in the world will never have even poorer countries from which to import their pollution-intensive goods. The US clean-up would simply have been the result of the US coming out ahead in an environmental zero-sum game, merely shifting pollution to different locations. However, if the US pollution reductions come from technology, nothing suggests those improvements cannot continue indefinitely and be repeated around the world. The analyses here suggest that most the pollution reductions have come from improved technology, that the environmental concerns of antiglobalization protesters have been overblown, and that the pollution reduction achieved by US manufacturing will replicable by other countries in the future.

What the study does not show, however, is the impact governmental intervention (yes, at one time not long ago government did demand industry clean up its act) and social change pressured manufacturers to get greener. Reading this analysis one would be forgiven for thinking the market spontaneously self-corrected because that’s what markets do.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Big markets tend to be juggernauts that once on a chosen path take heroic efforts to change. People, on the other hand, know when their environment is collapsing, and can make faster, finer tuned course corrections. We would argue that the reduction in America’s pollution is the result of societal pressure for change driven by the Rachel Carsons and Sierra Clubs of the world, and not the result of some previously unrecognized function of technological determinancy. 

[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 01/23 at 01:51 PM

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