Earth Day at 50: How Capitalism Almost Destroyed the Planet and How It Might Save It

An abandoned parking lot in the vicinity of Love Canal
An abandoned parking lot in the vicinity of Love Canal
An abandoned parking lot in the vicinity of Love Canal. Buffalutheran / CC0

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it is worth analyzing the evolution of environmental policies in the United States: where we were prior to the environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s, what those movements gave us, and how our current environmental innovations are guided by free market enterprise. Is Greta Thunberg correct? Is capitalism the cause of climate change or will it be our salvation? And as we confront the growing existential threat of climate chaos, how will we hold those who have committed the crimes of the past accountable?

First, let’s break down the history of climate policy into three distinct phases. Prior to the 1970s, what I refer to as Phase I, there were almost no national or global environmental protections. Rivers were open sewers, and in some cases regularly ablaze — think the infamous Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Future Superfund sites unfolded across the nation, from the Times Beach in Missouri to Love Canal in Niagara Falls, not to mention the many bankrupted and abandoned mines on federal lands. Images of these polluted sites, and the subsequent protests, appeared nightly on television newscasts in households across America. As we learned in Rachel Carson’s 1962 treatise Silent Spring, one of the loudest calls to action that emerged from this era of largely unrestricted capitalism sprung from the endangerment of our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, by DDT. Awareness increased of the possible connection between industrial chemicals and cancer rates. These factors jolted our nation to act, ushering in Phase II during the turbulent 1970s.

In early 1970, Richard Nixon began signing environmental bills into law. That same year, he formed the EPA and unveiled a popular environmental agenda. The first environmental law Nixon enacted, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is considered the Magna Carta of environmental law. It raised the national awareness of environmental issues and influenced laws and policies for decades to come. Jimmy Carter continued our progress toward what NEPA called a “productive harmony” between man and nature, but was hampered by a failing economy, high interest rates, and high unemployment.

Still, there is much to celebrate from this era: Thanks to laws such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, today our rivers no longer catch fire. Our chemists and engineers have developed technologies to treat most industrial wastes. Despite ongoing contamination concerns in certain parts of the country, lead levels in human blood have declined by 95 percent since the 1970s. Mercury exposure has largely been eliminated. The Stockholm Convention succeeded in almost globally banning the production and sale of Dirty Dozen pollutants. Acid atmospheric deposits are down in the northeastern U.S. and Canada. Urban smog formation has greatly decreased due to the Clean Air Act. And we have internationally banned most stratospheric ozone-depleting chemicals.

Many of these beneficial innovations resulted from a capitalistic instinct to be the first to develop viable technologies after new regulations were put forward. This period demonstrated that capitalism, if given the right signals and incentives, could, in fact, drive the development and adoption of technologies that reduce human impact and abate pollution.

Phase II legislative advances took a hit in 1980 with the deregulation administration of Ronald Reagan, setting the stage for our current climate crisis. While the U.S. has some highly effective environmental laws on the books, implementation often remains dependent on the occupant of the oval office. With few new environmental laws passed since the 1970s, the public’s voice has been the main force behind industry decisions, and the slow transition to Phase III of our environmental movement.

This is where capitalism really comes into play as part of the potential solution to climate change. Over the last decade or so, more and more “green” products have hit the market, not because of requirements set by governmental policy, but rather to meet consumer demand. Take some of the products from the last decade. What prompted the development of the Prius? Or the LED bulb? (Don’t get me started on our current president’s attempts to turn off the lights on this innovation.) The list keeps going: natural gas, wind farms and solar plants are all examples of this trend. The answer is that the public will pay for it. Just ask Toyota and Ford, which have pledged to roll out an entire fleet of electric vehicles by 2025: There’s money to be made in being green.

While our federal government has repeatedly shown an unwillingness to take the bold steps needed to address environmental challenges, including climate change, public investment in research and development and the use of public dollars to incentivize the deployment of new technologies have catalyzed much of the progress toward clean energy. Well-planned capitalism is now our only hope for mitigating climate change and maybe even overcoming the impending climate chaos. I do not know if we will reverse climate catastrophe, but “guided” free market enterprise is likely our best and last approach to a sustainable global climate.

For decades, even centuries, environmental arguments have centered around the Arcadians (preservationists of nature) and the Utilitarians (those in favor of more benign and effective use of nature). However, in the last few years, these two camps have combined into the “science believers.” Now, a new camp, the “science deniers,” has evolved. As we approach April 22, 2020, there remains this question: Realizing that specific individuals, industries, and government officials have put the future of the human race and Mother Earth in jeopardy, do we demand retribution for their misdeeds? Reparations of a certain flavor have already started, with multiple lawsuits pending against the fossil fuel industry. Tort law favors the environmentalists. So, do we hold UN-based Climate Change/Science Denier Trials? Do we incarcerate powerful deniers and bad faith actors, fine or even confiscate their past profits, or do we somehow “guide” them to more responsible industrial practices? I may be a screaming liberal science professor, but the Alabama farm boy in me says you pay for your sins.

As millions of youths marched for the Global Climate Strike, we need to learn from public action that spurred our greatest environmental accomplishments and force global action on Earth Day 2020. Capitalism can be the key to addressing climate change, but only if it is subject to robust regulations that motivate a total transformation of our society.

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