Wealth and the Environment

I have often argued that environmental cleanliness and wealth tend to follow a U-shaped curve.  Early industrialization tends to make air and water quality worse, but increases in wealth and technology over time tend to lead to an improved environment.  For example, nearly every air and water quality metric in the US has improved substantially over the last 40 years. 

To this end, I saw this chart in another context (Dr. Pielke was discussing the effect of land-use on regional climate changes) but I thought it was an interesting one to illustrate this point, and perhaps start to convince all those 20-somethings of the Obama generation that the world is not, in fact, spiraling ever downwards into economic decay.  This is a map of leaf area, bascially an index of forestation, for the Eastern US over the last 400 years.  Note the trend reversal since 1920.


I have argued for a while that trying to slam a halt to China's development as part of some misguided environmental effort may in fact achieve the opposite effect, locking China into the low-point of the U-shaped curve just at the point when increasing wealth may be pushing them to start cleaning up.


  1. ElamBend:

    When I was in college on the East Coast and someone started talking about sprawl and the loss of 'wilderness' I always loved pointing out that all those wooded hills in CT and lower NY were denuded of trees over 150 years ago to build ships and just look at them now.

    Here in Chicago, a Puma showed up in the city, not because we've pushed into it's habitat, but because we are steadily abandoning the countryside.

  2. Michael Miller:

    I think your point is right on target. The Audubon Society was founded early in the last century by the scions of the robber barons. Bird watching was all the rage among the wealthy of that time. They ended the plumage trade They successfully lobbied for bag limits on commercial hunters and then for the National Parks system which got the conservation ball rolling in the US. Absolutely, wealth creation was the key. Same thing happened in Britain and Europe.

  3. Josh:

    In California's Sierra Nevada, the Gold Rush of 1849 led to near-total deforestation. After the initial rush, the industrial gold extractors set up shop with their dredges, mines, and stamp mills. These things require tremendous quantities of fuel, and the local forests were basically completely consumed.

    I used to live about 15 miles away from a tiny remnant of a gold rush town. The area always looked to me like a mighty forest, with giant incense-cedars and pines making it impossible to see more than twenty feet in most places. They are (I guess) on average 200 feet tall.

    But up on the hillside behind our house was a monster tree, maybe 8-10 feet in diameter at the base and much taller than the rest. It wasn't a Sequoia, it was just another incense-cedar, but huge. Curiously, beside it was the rotted remains of a very old house. Just a few boards hidden under the grass, really, with square nails if you wanted to dig for them.

    That's how I learned that the area was clear-cut about a hundred years ago. The vast majority of the trees in the area were burned to run steam engines in stamp mills and such. But next to homes, people would preserve trees for their own enjoyment. The giant behind my house was an example of this.

    California has a few areas of virgin forest nearer the coast. The logging companies fight for the opportunity to capitalize on them, employing any number of tricks, and environmentalists fight right back. I don't think the environmentalists could prevail if our country weren't so prosperous. The same goes for these second-growth trees in gold rush country. People can afford to burn the scrubby little oaks, or heat homes with propane furnaces, and leave most of the trees alone.

  4. Franco:

    I read that 60 million acres were used for boarding horses which have been reforested. The shift to steel for shipbuilding and construction for example (which is and always has been the most recycled material) obviates the need for the need to continually harvest more trees as the wood rots. The absolutists cannot admit that things aren't as simple as they seem or their message gets diluted and their subjects start to critically consider their propositions.

  5. Dan:

    Good post - I was aware that regions like New England have far more forested area now than they did 80 years ago. Much of that is due to the fact that the industrial revolution caused us to turn away from wood as a fuel, and instead to use fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas to heat our homes. Now that those commodities, especially oil and gas, are becoming more scarce and expensive, I've seen news stories about people in New England once again using wood for heat. Looks like we may come full circle. So let's not pat ourselves on the back too much.

  6. John Dewey:

    In the southern U.S., pine plantations on private land account for the return of forest land. It is not environmentalists bent on saving trees, but rather profit-seekers trying to earn a buck who made this happen. As long as economic incentives remain to plant seedlings and harvest timber, the southern U.S. will continue to be the world's leading source of timber.

    Charles Tomlinson explains:

    "We see that our forests are growing more wood than we are removing from them. In the past fifty years we have increased the balance in our forest savings account by over 73 percent. The interest on this account (growth) should mean that, even with increased harvest, we will still be adding to our balance in the future. Rather than running out of trees, we are growing more than we can use."

    Global economic growth will increase the demand for timber and paper. Such demand will "save" more forests than a billion rabid environmentalists.

  7. Kurt:

    The U shaped curve is called the Kuznets curve. It describes income inequality but has also been discussed as a model for pollution.


  8. Rocky Mountain:

    Of course, we only assume that the curve is U-shaped and we don't really know what will happen.