Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

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.


April 23, 2008 - Posted by | Capitalism, Environmentalism


  1. Two words have the power to debunk the myth of free market environmental protection:


    Comment by Michael J. Iafrate | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  2. So because coal mining companies sometimes use open mines rather than tunnels (tunnels which, incidentally, result in the deaths of far more miners than open mines) then clearly the free market has done absolutely nothing to improve the environment, ever?

    As the saying goes: Talk sense, why don’t you.

    Comment by Darwin | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  3. I’m saying that Appalachian people know better.

    And you clearly don’t know anything about mountaintop removal mining.

    Comment by Michael J. Iafrate | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  4. Know anything is such a relative term. I think in this case you may mean that I don’t fully agree with your assessment of it.

    Now I’ll say this: It’s ludicrous that we still have such a high dependance on coal in this country. We should have long ago switched to 80%+ nuclear for our power generation, which would eliminate much of the need for coal — other than steel production, which is a shrinking industry in the US anyway.

    I certainly don’t love mountaintops being leveled and valleys filled, but the reason that it’s done is that it allows fewer workers working more safely to get more coal out of the ground faster than other methods. It results in very unsightly destruction (not all that different, except perhaps in scale) from the silver pit-mining slag heap which now rises like a range of hills where the town that my grandfather grew up in in New Mexico once stood.

    However, if one takes it as a given that coal is to be taken out of the ground, then generally strip mining and mountain top removal are safer for workers and more efficient than tunnel mining. If you want to talk about community suffering, look at the life inflicted on coal mining communities of 100+ years ago. Ugly though it is, the current approach is better in regards to human cost.

    Unless one cares more about scenic vistas than people’s lives — which is perhaps a valid position, but not mine.

    Comment by Darwin | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  5. Unless one cares more about scenic vistas than people’s lives — which is perhaps a valid position, but not mine.

    Yep, you don’t seem to know much about MTR, especially its impact on human communities. Proved my point.

    Comment by Michael J. Iafrate | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  6. MTR often results in the destruction of small mining towns. Mining companies often buy them up and then demolish all the homes in order to turn the valley into a slag heap.

    Is that what you’re talking about?

    Of course, if we get out of coal entirely, as we should, most of these mining towns would die off anyway…

    Comment by Darwin | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  7. MTR results in various kinds of destruction. Keep poking around on the net and read up on it. And take your ideological sunglasses off before you do.

    Comment by michael | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  8. I confess that I don’t know as much about MTR as I should. Perhaps it is an exception to the general rule that a free economy leads to a cleaner, healthier, and more pleasant environment. I suspect, though, that part of the problem may be a lack of enforceable private property rights (at least, it’s hard to see how many of the complaints leveled against MTR wouldn’t be illegal under traditional common law private property principles).

    Comment by Blackadder | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  9. BA – The claims you are making about capitalism, though, require you to take seriously the effects it has in real life. Taking the Appalachian experience seriously would be one good (and absolutely necessary) step in a serious evaluation of capitalism.

    Comment by michael | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  10. I do take the effects capitalism has in real life seriously. That’s why I favor it.

    Comment by Blackadder | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  11. You take the effects of capitalism ‘seriously,’ and yet you cannot speak to these effects as they impact some of the most vulnerable people in the United States? How seriously can you be taking them?

    Comment by michael | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  12. Gibbering back at gibbons is stimulating but not intellectually stimulating.

    at least, it’s hard to see how many of the complaints leveled against MTR wouldn’t be illegal under traditional common law private property principles

    Some of my practice involves surface mining and surface estate-mineral estate conflicts. Its not exactly right that traditional common law private property principles would prevent this sort of thing. Owners of the mineral estate have an easement to use the surface estate and courts have often been very generous in interpreting the bounds of this easement. However courts have recently trended towards a more equitable interpretation of the burden the mineral estate can put on the surface estate, so most surface mining nowadays either happens on federal or state land, or else the mineral estate owner has expressly bought off the surface owners.

    In general I believe you are right that normal common-law liability and property law has had the effect of improving the environments. On average I would say the environment has also improved as a side effect of technical improvements made for other reason. I would also say that our increasing wealth has made us much more willing to consider environmental regulation or directly spend on environmental goods.

    So if someone retorts, no, its the CAA that has made the air cleaner what they are really saying is, yes, I agree.

    Comment by Adam Greenwood | April 23, 2008 | Reply

  13. I don’t think one needs to know the details about MTR to have an opinion on capitalism. And I would add that, given that West Virginia has the lowest level of economic freedom of any of the 50 states, whatever problems the state has might not be the result of unfettered capitalism.

    But I’ll make you a deal. If you have something you would like me to read or listen to explaining the negative effects of MTR, or of capitalism generally, I will do so, provided you agree to read or listen to something comparable I pick on the merits of the free market.

    Comment by Blackadder | April 24, 2008 | Reply

  14. BA – Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism is on my list for the summer. Will that do?

    Comment by michael | April 24, 2008 | Reply

  15. I’ve never read the Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, so I really can’t say. You might be better off reading something like Basic Economics or Economics in One Lesson. Or there is some stuff on the web I could direct you to.

    Comment by Blackadder | April 24, 2008 | Reply

  16. Heh. I’ve got the Novak book on my pile too, having been put onto it by Zach over at Civics Geeks. We should form a club…

    Comment by Darwin | April 24, 2008 | Reply

  17. I do not want to be in a Michael Novak club, but thank you anyway.

    Comment by Michael J. Iafrate | April 24, 2008 | Reply

  18. New Ideas from Dead Economists is a good introduction.
    So is Friedman’s Free to Choose.

    Comment by Adam Greenwood | April 24, 2008 | Reply

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