Jonah Goldberg

Anyway, there's more good news, of course. According to Gregg Easterbrook, air pollution is lower than it has been in a generation, drinking water is safer, and our waterways are cleaner.

America's environmental revival is a rich and complicated story with many specific exceptions, caveats and, of course, setbacks. But the overarching theme is pretty simple: The richer you get, the healthier your environment gets. This is because rich societies can afford to indulge their environmental interests and movements. Poor countries cannot.

Unsurprisingly, rich countries tend to have a better grasp of economics and the role of markets, private stewardship and property rights, reasonable regulations, and so forth. With the exception of some oil-rich states, they're also almost always democratic and hence have systems that can successfully assign blame to, and demand restitution from, polluters. In socialized economies, a "tragedy of the commons" almost always arises. As Harvard president Lawrence Summers says, nobody's ever washed a rented car.

So let's get back to the bad news, the world is coming to an end. OK, not quite. But the coverage of the United Nations' new "Millennium Ecosystem Assessment" report was very close to a doomsday scenario, complete with references to "running out" of resources and the rest. And let's be fair, unlike the situation in America and Europe, there are some enormous environmental problems in the world. Even if you're a global warming skeptic, there's no disputing that such problems as over-fishing are real.

But fear not. There's some unexpected good news. The United Nations(!) seems to have some good ideas for how to solve these problems. Tim Worstall of TechCentralStation.com was the first - and perhaps only - commentator to notice that the U.N. report entertains the possibility that market mechanisms - property rights, credits, trade - are solutions to environmental ills, not causes of it.

If the United Nations is actually serious - fingers crossed! - this would constitute enormous progress and a sign that the global environmental community has finally conquered what I call the cultural contradictions of environmentalism. Broadly speaking, environmentalists want to end poverty, hunger and disease, but they also want to keep indigenous cultures unchanged. But you can't have both simultaneously. It is the natural state of indigenous cultures, after all, to be constantly vulnerable to disease and hunger, and no man fighting to keep his children alive cares about "biodiversity."

For decades environmentalists pointed to various calamities and boasted that they were identifying the problems, which is the first step for providing a solution. But they were wrong; environmental distress is a symptom of political and economic corruption. There's reason to hope the United Nations has finally recognized the real problem, and that's great news.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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