Next Tuesday is Earth Day. Let’s celebrate by building an oil pipeline or by producing more energy, or by building a manufacturing plant. The result will be more protection for the environment than imposition of more environmental restrictions.
That might sound counterintuitive, but it’s true. When people become wealthy, or at least middle-class, they become much more concerned about the environment than when they are poor. When you’re poor you care about the basics of food and shelter and you don’t much care about carbon emissions or PM2.
But when you become wealthy or at least get to the point you don’t have to be so concerned about money, you have the financial freedom to care about arts, culture — and the environment.
However, it takes a lot of energy and mineral extraction and industry and transportation infrastructure for people to get wealthy. Wealth for the masses can’t be created out of thin air. Most of the activities that create wealth also create pollution (although not nearly as much today as in the past).
I view myself as a mainstream conservative and a mainstream conservationist. I serve on the Utah board of The Nature Conservancy, a terrific organization (and this column does not reflect the views of TNC). Almost all of my fellow board members are people of substantial financial means. I’m no doubt the poorest of the group (they invited me because of my good looks). The Nature Conservancy does wonderful conservation work all over the world. Many wealthy people are pleased to make substantial contributions to its operations. While people of average means certainly make modest contributions, it is wealthy people who help make the organization really effective.
Most conservation organizations also rely on big foundations to help fund major initiatives. And, guess what, many of the original founders of those large, wealthy foundations that do so much good in the world made their money doing dirty things – oil, manufacturing, railroads, etc.
The pattern is clear. It takes lots of energy and industry – things that pollute –for a lot of people to make a lot of money. Once people make a lot of money they become interested in the environment and they give back some of that money. And they become more conservation minded. And they can afford electric cars and zero-emission homes, and they’re willing to pay for public transit. It’s kind of a virtuous circle.
The truth is, today the nation’s air is cleaner, our water is purer, and gorgeous vistas and wildlife are better protected than any time in the last hundred years. Certainly, some of the good results come from laws and regulations. But we put up with the laws and regulations because we are a wealthy nation and we can afford it.
So in rural Utah, and in developing nations, if we want people to care about the environment we need to help them make money. We won’t have to pass a lot of restrictive new laws because people with money become conservation-minded even without force. And the best way to make money is energy development, heavy industry and transportation infrastructure.
So if we want to really save the world from climate change, we need to drill, baby drill. And build those highways, refineries and oil pipelines.