History of Environmental Economic Thought

History of Environmental Economic Thought

History of Environmental Economic Thought

History of Environmental Economic Thought


This volume presents the ideas of major economists on issues such as population growth, resource scarcity and environmental contamination, exploring the historical roots of current debates. Empirical case studies link theory and practice.


In Adam Smith’s early and rudimentary stage of society, which precedes both the accumulation of capital stock and appropriation of land, nature, left to its own devices, provided a certain quality and quantity of items that man used for his activities. At that stage, human numbers were small, their needs were basic and nature abounded with natural resources. There were vast forests in which to live and hunt, extract wood and gather fruits and nuts; fish was plentiful in the seas, lakes and rivers, and water and air was unpolluted. Man, as a hunter, was merely nibbling around the edges of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of natural resources.

The next stage, which may be termed as preliterate settlement civilisation, was the adoption of a more settled lifestyle in which suitable animals were domesticated and the cultivation of land was begun. At first, the change in lifestyle did not have too much impact on the landscape as it was still shaped by the elements of nature. However, as human numbers increased, so did the pressure for land on which to grow more food to sustain the expanding communities. Forest clearance began to intensify as new territories were opened up for agriculture and the extraction of wood for construction and energy purposes.

Deforestation, land erosion and over-salinisation were the earliest environmental problems created by man, and these were most extensive in the Middle East, North Africa, southern Europe and China. In the course of history, the reckless use of resources and lack of foresight have repeatedly led to environmental degradation which, in turn, has contributed to the downfall of many civilisations.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation in northern Europe created mainly localised pollution and health problems. In most European cities, hygiene was very poor well into the nineteenth century as human and animal wastes were thrown into the streets. In England, especially, the concentration of the working population in sub-standard accommodation with insufficient sanitation, poor air and contaminated water made life a misery for the masses. Many industrial districts were blackened with soot. Diggle (1961) reports that the air and

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