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Democracy cleans the environment

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Cal

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Blue' Environmentalism
The Ecology of Liberty

April 15, 2005

It was one of the earliest—and most graphic—attempts to blame pollution on overpopulation. In his classic book Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich described an evening he spent in Delhi, India: "The streets seemed alive with people," he wrote. "People eating, people washing . . . people defecating and urinating. . . . As we moved slowly through the mob . . . the dust, noise, heat, and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect." The solution, Ehrlich then concluded, was compulsory population control.

But theologian Michael Novak says the problem is not too many people; it's too much poverty. And the most effective way to lift the poor out of poverty—and thus cut down on pollution—is by promoting capitalism, private enterprise, and freedom, what Novak calls "the ecology of liberty."

As Novak writes in National Review, "Where people are poor, environmental conditions tend to be abysmal. And if the twentieth century proved anything, it was that the best way to end poverty isn't red—the color of socialism—but blue, the color of liberty, personal initiative, and enterprise."

For instance, worldwide, more than a billion people live without clean drinking water. This is especially true in Africa, thanks to perpetual civil wars, dishonest governments, and badly managed finances.

Of course, Africa faces technical challenges to clean water—but there is no reason these challenges cannot be conquered, as they've been conquered elsewhere, Novak writes. And that can only happen if other obstacles—political, cultural, and economic—are addressed using economic incentives.

For example, Africans have become accustomed to subsidized or no-cost water. At the same time, farmers and industries that pollute the water pay no price for doing so. So without any incentive to save and protect clean water, water is treated recklessly.

The solution is not fewer people polluting, but incentives for conscientious use of water and penalties for irresponsible use. Those who build and maintain treatment facilities could be offered financial incentives; polluters could be penalized.

Bringing clean water to the whole world requires imagination and enterprise, capital and organizational skills, according to Novak. The institutions best equipped to supply these elements are in the corporate business sector. Novak notes, "Blue Environmentalism encourages the highest possible level of practicality and private enterprise."

This principle of liberty—which applies to all environmental concerns—is one of the guiding principles of what Novak labels "Blue Environmentalism." When people make free choices, "they normally calculate the costs and benefits of their actions," Novak writes. "These costs and benefits should be so aligned as to promote the common good, while respecting free choice."

Although many environmental activists are loathe to admit it, this is one more reason for America to encourage the spread of democracy around the world: It will result in a cleaner planet. And that's something to remember during the preparations for Creation Sunday 2005. What treaties and bureaucracies often can never achieve, free individuals and free markets often can.
 
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