Monday, 21 July, 2008

Not inferior, murderous

In The Armchair Economist (1993) Stephen Landsburg, while explaining 'why he isn't an environmentalist', writes, “In the current political climate, it is frequently taken as an axiom that the U.S. government should concern itself with the welfare of Americans first; it is also frequently taken as an axiom that air pollution is always and everywhere a bad thing. You might, then, have expected a general chorus of approval when the chief economist of the World Bank suggested that it might be good thing to relocate high-pollution industries to Third World countries. To most economists, this is a self-evident opportunity to make not just Americans but everybody better off. People in wealthy countries can afford to sacrifice some income for the luxury of cleaner air; people in poorer countries are happy to breath inferior air for the opportunity to improve their incomes. But when the bank economist's observation was leaked to the media, parts of the environmental community went ballistic. To them, pollution is a form of sin. They seek not to improve our welfare, but save our souls.”

While Dr Landsburg has taught me many things through this book and its successor, More Sex is Better Sex, I do think he does need a few pointers on basic biology on this one.

Many of the industries exported to Third World countries like India are not just polluting: They are banned in the West. One prominent example is certain types of shipwrecking; another is asbestos. 

All pollution kills, but some kill very quickly and cruelly, more so when the victim is a dirt poor worker with no protection while working and no medicines when ill. Such a person is employed for a couple of years or so, becomes an unemployable and infirm dependent on his family for the next decade, and is dead thereafter. It's not 'inferior air'; it's 'murderous air'.

And there is no trade-off. The Third World labourer doesn't take up a killing job knowing full well that he's going to die. The employer doesn't tell him; the media has better things to do; and NGOs have their head blown off if they open their mouths. He is not even choosing between immediate death, from starvation, and death a few years later, from work-related disease and with a great deal of pain.  

Also, from the Americans' point of view, clean air shouldn't be a luxury but a right. Just as clean water or edible food is. Polluted air kills. So how is clean air a luxury? I suppose a degree of severity matters, even in economics. (Taking your money via trade is not the same as taking it via theft.) 

The environmentalist, at least here, is trying to save lives, not souls.  

While accusing environmentalists of hysteria, our economist needn't be cynical, need he?.

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