Cleaned by Capitalism
Over at Vox-Nova, my co-blogger Policraticus has pointed to some of the many statements made by the Popes in recent years on the importance of protecting the environment. It’s only fair, however, to note just how much technological progress and the free economy have led to a cleaner, healthier, and all around more pleasant environment. As Don Boudreaux has put it:
[S]mallpox, dysentery, and malaria – once common threats to humankind – are today totally conquered in the industrial world. (Smallpox is no longer a threat even in the poorest parts of the world.) Antibiotics regularly protect us from many infections that routinely killed our ancestors.
Before refrigeration, people ran enormous risks of ingesting deadly bacteria whenever they ate meat or dairy products. Refrigeration has dramatically reduced the bacteria pollution that constantly haunted our pre-twentieth-century forebears.
We wear clean clothes; our ancestors wore foul clothes. Pre-industrial humans had no washers, dryers, or sanitary laundry detergent. Clothes were worn day after day without being washed. And when they were washed, the detergent was often made of urine.
Our bodies today are much cleaner. Sanitary soap is dirt cheap (so to speak), as is clean water from household taps. The result is that, unlike our ancestors, we moderns bathe frequently. Not only was soap a luxury until just a few generations ago, but because nearly all of our pre-industrial ancestors could afford nothing larger than minuscule cottages, there were no bathrooms (and certainly no running water). Baths, when taken, were taken in nearby streams, rivers, or ponds often the same bodies of water used by the farm animals. Forget about shampoo, clean towels, toothpaste, mouthwash, and toilet tissue.
The interiors of our homes are immaculate compared to the squalid interiors of almost all pre-industrial dwellings. These dwellings’ floors were typically just dirt which made the farm animals feel right at home when they wintered in the house with humans. Of course, there was no indoor plumbing. Nor were there household disinfectants, save sunlight. Unfortunately, because pre-industrial window panes were too expensive for ordinary families and because screens are an invention of the industrial age sunlight and fresh air could be let into these cottages only by letting in insects too. Also, bizarre as it sounds to us today, the roofs of these dwellings were polluted with all manner of filthy or dangerous things.Here’s the description by historians Frances and Joseph Gies, in Life in a Medieval Village, of the roofs of pre-industrial cottages: “Roofs were thatched, as from ancient times, with straw, broom or heather, or in marsh country reeds or rushes. . . . Thatched roofs had formidable drawbacks; they rotted from alternations of wet and dry, and harbored a menagerie of mice, rats, hornets, wasps, spiders, and birds; and above all they caught fire. Yet even in London they prevailed.”
One consequence is described by French historian Fernand Braudel: Fleas, lice and bugs conquered London as well as Paris, rich interiors as well as poor. (See Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life.)
Our streets are clean. Here, again, is Braudel, commenting on Parisian streets in the late-eighteenth century: “And chamber pots, as always, continued to be emptied out of windows; the streets were sewers.” Modern sewage disposal has disposed of this disgusting pollution. And that very symbol of twentieth-century capitalism the automobile has further cleaned our streets by ridding us of the constant presence of horse dung and of the swarms of flies it attracted.
Consider, finally, a very recent victorious battle against pollution: toilets and urinals that automatically flush. Until a few years ago, every public toilet and urinal had to be flushed manually. Not so today. As automatic flushers replace manual flushers, we no longer must pollute our hands by touching filthy flush knobs.
Indeed, the development brought by the free economy has even led, paradoxically enough, to an increased ability to appreciate nature itself. As Thomas Macaulay put it more than 150 years ago:
law and police, trade and industry, have done far more than people of romantic dispositions will readily admit, to develop in our minds a sense of the wilder beauties of nature. A traveler must be freed from all apprehension of being murdered or starved before he can be charmed by the bold outlines and rich tints of the hills. He is not likely to be thrown into ecstasies by the abruptness of a precipice from which he is in imminent danger of falling two thousand feet perpendicular; by the boiling waves of a torrent which suddenly whirls away his baggage and forces him to run for his life; by the gloomy grandeur of a pass where he finds a corpse which marauders have just stripped and mangled; or by the screams of those eagles whose next meal may probably be on his own eyes. . . .
It was not till roads had been cut out of the rocks, till bridges had been flung over the courses of the rivulets, till inns had succeeded to dens of robbers . . . that strangers could be enchanted by the blue dimples of lakes and by the rainbows which overhung the waterfalls, and could derive a solemn pleasure even from the clouds and tempests which lowered on the mountain tops.
No system is perfect, of course, and we should always strive to make improve things, whether the subject is the environment or poverty or war. But there is still a lot to be thankful for, particularly when one considers the alternatives.
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