So Many People

Thomas Malthus in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population worried that population growth would surpass food supplies. Malthus concluded that pestilence, war, and hunger would continually bedevil humans. In recent decades many still voice concerns that we are stretching the carrying capacity of the planet earth beyond its capabilities. They call for limits to economic growth because of concern regarding its impact on the environment too many people using too many resources creating too...

The Endangered Species

In the United States, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), an ambitious and controversial piece of legislation, is primary legislation designed to protect important species and habitat. The original ESA of 1969 authorized the Secretary of the Interior to purchase land for species protection and preservation. The ESA, passed by Congress in 1973, protects habitat and also contains a provision for listing species as threatened or endangered. The ESA is a command-and-control approach that limits what...

How Much Pollution is OK

Chemical acronyms such as PCBs, CFCs, and DDT are commonplace. Modern society has created an alphabet soup of toxic chemicals that we dump into our air, water, and soil. According to the American Chemical Society, 15,000,000 chemical substances are registered and in use in America. We also create innumerable tons of biodegradable waste that can be less damaging but harmful to the environment nonetheless. As Barry Commoner says, No action is without its side effects. Part of the pollution...

Subsidizing Environmental Damage

Government sometimes causes environmental damage with subsidies. Many vested interest groups lobby politicians and government bureaucrats in support of good causes such as economic growth, national security, protecting jobs, and helping the poor. Presidents and Congress often oblige them with financial support through subsidies. Most proponents of subsidies start out with noble intentions. Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans often are costly, inefficient, and damaging to the environment....

Overusing the Commons and Environmental Pollution

We can also use the tragedy of the commons to explain environmental pollution. With pollution, we don't take something (like pigeons) out of the commons but instead we put obnoxious stuff (like sulfur dioxide) into the commons. Business firms don't put bad stuff into the commons because they are bad people who enjoy making others worse off. Instead, they want to produce goods at the lowest possible cost, so that they can compete with their competitors in providing the best deal for their...

Overusing the Commons

People do not set out with the intention of destroying the environment. We undertake activities to improve our welfare, and as a byproduct we unintentionally damage the environment in the process. Environmental degradation stems from the predictable manner in which humans respond to incentives. When human beings make decisions, they weigh their personal private gains and losses, not societal gains and losses. Suppose an individual finds a nesting pair of red-cockaded woodpeckers (which are on...

The Importance of Economics

When human beings must choose between basic items such as food, clothing, and housing on the one hand or protecting the environment on the other, the environment loses almost every time. That is a fact. Some of the most serious environmental problems the world faces are in the poorer nations. The two countries with the most plant and animal species are Brazil and Indonesia. Yet, Brazilians sacrifice rain forest for food production, and Indonesians, reacting to the recent economic crisis, are...

The Prehistoric Ferns Did It

India Heat Wave Kills 2,500, El Ni os Getting Worse Can we blame these recent 1998 events on prehistoric ferns Maybe. We owe a lot to prehistoric plants. Fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas are the fossilized remains of prehistoric plants. We rely on fossilized plant remains to run our machinery, heat our homes, and power our vehicles. Unfortunately, as we burn fossil fuels, we release carbon dioxide CO2 into the atmosphere. In recent decades we've been burning more fossil fuel and...

Other Solutions to Pollution Problems

Common law also provides citizens some protection from polluting firms. Lawsuits encourage economic efficiency by placing financial responsibility for environmental damage on the polluter. Consequently, firms are encouraged to practice better stewardship to avoid future legal costs. Nothing gets a business firm's attention more than having their profits and stock prices fall. Following the 1989 Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Exxon spent billions of dollars in cleanup costs and damage claims that...

Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away Individuals Chose Purposely and Predictably Just as They Do Here and

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. In the clever old standard Let's Do It, Cole Porter has everything and everybody doing it. He was talking about falling in love, but he could just as well have been talking about making choices. Even people in distant times and places did it. We can imagine Luke Skywalker, the hero of Star Wars, gazing out at the twin moons that circled his planet and wishing for a faster landcruiser or a C-3PO unit that could regale him with stories of the...

The Environment and Economics

Few would deny the importance of maintaining some level of environmental quality. The environmental problems society faces are substantial and are of growing concern to Americans and people around the globe. Consider a brief litany of some pressing environmental concerns offered by well-known environmentalist E. O. Wilson approaching limits of food and water supplies, loss of species diversity, ozone layer depletion, overfished oceans, polluted air and water, global warming, shrinking forests,...

The Case for Market Incentives

The traditional method used by the government to deal with pollution is the command and control approach. Because the government uses its power of command and control to set the environmental standards that polluters must follow, this method is also known as the standards approach. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency EPA might require a specific type of technology such as a smokestack scrubber for a paper mill, or an emission standard in the form of a limitation on the quantity of...