Montreal, November 5, 2006 • No 200




Pierre Desrochers is Assistant Professor of geography at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.




by Pierre Desrochers


          Last month our southern neighbours welcomed the arrival (or birth) of their three-hundredth million citizen. While the news should have been welcomed, a number of environmental activists and journalists viewed it as cause for concern. They had no reasons to, because a rising population in a prosperous economy is entirely consistent with a higher quality of life and improved environmental amenities. As Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute pointed out, even though the U.S. population is today four times larger than it was a century ago, during this time period "life expectancy at birth has grown from 48 to 78 years, infant mortality rates have plunged, a host of deadly diseases have been conquered, and the air we breathe and the water we drink are far cleaner than when we were a less populous country."(1)


          The idea that economic growth generates pollution problems, but simultaneously provides the means to clean up most of them and even to improve on earlier conditions, is probably too counterintuitive to be readily accepted by most people. It is nonetheless backed up by much historical evidence. A brief discussion of the causes underlying forest regrowth and improvements in air and water quality in advanced economies can be illustrative in this respect.

Air Quality

          While historically severe localized problems drew much attention, some evidence suggests that air quality improved significantly in many American cities for decades prior to the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act. Suspended particulates in Cincinnati thus declined between 1946 and 1951, while atmospheric visibility markedly improved in Pittsburgh between 1946 and 1955 (Goklany, 1999). In the late 1960s, the sulfur dioxide content of the air in some American cities was only one-third or one-fourth of what it had been before World War II (Crenson, 1971), while the rate of pollution reduction in the 1970s might have been less than the one observed in the 1960s (Crandall, 1983). Indeed, according to Goklany (1999), by the 1960s the smoke problem was virtually solved in most American urban areas. Similar trends were also observed in London and other places, with turning points usually occurring at the beginning of the twentieth century (Brimblecombe, 1987).

          Air quality improvements during this period can be credited mostly to fuel switches (from coal to heavy oil, natural gas, hydro-electricity and nuclear power generation) that took place for purely economic reasons (Ausubel, 1991), but also to some extent to increased efficiencies of control of smoke and dust pollution in industries and power plants. For example, nationwide estimates of overall dust collection efficiency for power plants, which had been 40% pre-1940, had climbed to 75% by 1940, over 80% by 1950, 90% by 1960 and 95,5% by 1966 (Goklany, 1999)(2).

Water Quality

          Similar trends can be observed for water quality. For example, Freeman (1995/1990: 114), referring to the EPA's first National Water Quality Inventory conducted in 1973, points out that there had been substantial improvement in water quality in major waterways in the 1950s and 1960s, at least in regard to organic wastes and bacteria, much of which could be traced back to the construction of sewage systems. This emphasis on organic pollution can be explained by the spreading influence of the germ theory of disease in the late 19th Century which focused the attention of public health officials and sanitary engineers on sewage as a much more serious health threat than inorganic industrial discharges. Of course, as Cumbler (1995) points out, this emphasis might have also resulted at least in part from political expediency.

"The idea that economic growth generates pollution problems, but simultaneously provides the means to clean up most of them and even to improve on earlier conditions, is probably too counterintuitive to be readily accepted by most people."


Forest Cover

          It is a common misconception that deforestation is a recent occurrence, with the bulk of it taking place in the tropical regions of the world in the last five decades. As Williams (2002) points out, possibly as much as nine-tenths of all deforestation occurred before 1950, as people cleared forests for shelter, food, warmth and to create a multitude of implements. Beginning in some European countries in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, these trends have long been reversed in virtually all advanced economies and in some developing economies (including China and India). Among other factors explaining this rebirth of forests in over fifty countries is the fact that farmers and foresters became increasingly efficient in their capacity to grow more food and fiber on ever-decreasing areas, with the resulting abandonment of pasture and cropland paving the way to afforestation and reforestation.

          Meanwhile, wood users became increasingly adept at extracting more value out of their input, while development of substitute products, ranging from electricity to plastics and metals, reduced the demand for wood (Ausubel, 2000; Williams, 1989). Rudel et al. (2004) also point out that economic development and urbanization has created better paying non-farming jobs in urban areas, causing a number of agricultural workers to abandon their land. In places with stable or growing populations and little ability to import forest products, continued declines in forest cover spur increases in prices of forest products, causing landowners to plant trees instead of crops or pasture grasses. Disastrous floods in deforested watersheds have also motivated government officials in developing, but now prosperous, countries to implement reforestation programs.


          Technological advances that resulted in the development of anti-pollution technologies, less damageable and/or less scarce substitute products, and increasingly efficient use of materials, are usually singled out for recent positive environmental trends (Ausubel, 1998). It can also be argued, however, that market incentives and institutions further paved the way to another important process that has gone virtually unnoticed in environmental circles, i.e., the widespread creation of marketable goods out of industrial waste (see also: "Free market ways to solve environmental problems").


1. Griswold, Dan. 2006. "America, 300 Million Strong." McClatchy News Service, October 11.
2. Goklany (1999) also reports that there was far more state and local regulatory activity before 1970 than most analysts realize and that the main explanation for sub-optimal emissions control policies prior to 1970 is that scientists came rather late to the conclusion that nitrogen oxides and other substances were truly pollutants worth worrying about.


• Ausubel, Jesse. 2000. "The Great Reversal. Nature's Chance to Restore Land and Sea." Technology in Society 22: 289-302.
• Ausubel, Jesse. 1998. "The Environment for Future Business. Efficiency will Win." Pollution Prevention Review 8 (1):39-52.
• Ausubel, Jesse. 1991. "Energy and Environment: The Light Path." Energy Systems and Policy 15 (3): 181-188.
• Brimblecombe, Peter. 1987. The Big Smoke. A History of Air Pollution in London since Medieval Times. London: Methuen.
• Crandall, Robert. 1983. Controlling Industrial Pollution: The Economics and Politics of Clean Air. Washington: Brookings Institution.
• Crenson, Matthew A. 1971. The Un-Politics of Air Pollution: A Study of Non-Decisionmaking in the Cities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
• Cumbler, John T. 1995. "Whatever Happened to Industrial Waste? Reform, Compromise, and Science in Nineteenth Century Southern New England." Journal of Social History 29 (1): 140-171
• Freeman, A. Myrick. 1995/1990. "Water Pollution Policy." In Paul Portney (editor). Public Policies for Environmental Protection. Washington: Resources for the Future, pp. 97-149.
• Goklany, Indur M. 1999. Clearing the Air. The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution. Washington: Cato Institute.
• Rudel, Thomas K., Oliver T. Coomes, Emilio Moran, Frederic Achard, Arild Angelsen, Jianchu Xu and Eric Lambin. 2005. "Forest Transitions: Towards a Global Understanding of Land Use Change." Global Environmental Change 15 (1): 23-31.
• Williams, Michael. 2002. Deforesting the Earth. From Prehistory to Global Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
• Williams, Michael. 1989. Americans and their Forests. A Historical Geography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.