Voodoo Environmentalism

Article excerpt

When President Bush recently presented his new climate-change policy, he argued that economic growth is the key to environmental progress. Economic growth, he suggested, provides us the means to develop and invest in cleaner technologies. Mr. Bush's father once referred to Ronald Reagan's trickle-down economics as voodoo economics. I would assert that growth-induced conservation is a case of voodoo environmentalism.

The idea of wealth-induced environmental conservation is not a new one. In fact, this notion is consistent with conservative views of the sustainable development concept, an approach that came to prominence following the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development. While the idea of growth-induced environmentalism holds a certain amount of intuitive appeal, it is questionable for a number of reasons.

First, economic growth tends to create as much environmental degradation as it potentially resolves, especially in the absence of regulation. The problem is that increased wealth tends to foster increased consumption and its attendant pollution. A more advanced economy may allow us to pay for pollution abatement, but this does not necessarily put us ahead of the game if our energy consumption levels are increasing at the same rate - or faster.

Second, while wealth may give consumers the means to purchase low- polluting technologies, such as hybrid cars, the demand for manufacturers to develop these advanced technologies simply doesn't exist to any wide extent in the United States. Just look at the trends. In the late 1990s, many Americans saw their incomes rise. Greater wealth, combined with low fuel prices, led to a boom in the sale of gas-guzzling SUVs and a rise in CO2 emissions.

Third, the growth-induced environmental conservation argument often is supported by cross-national studies suggesting a correlation between wealth (or GNP) and environmental standards. In most instances, these studies have focused on industrial emissions as a proxy for all environmental variables.

But the pollution generated by the production of goods for wealthy nations has not changed significantly (as the studies imply); it has just been shifted around the globe. …