The free market is often blamed for pollution. The the unbridled greed of capitalists is the reason rivers flow red, forests are felled, and air is made hard to breathe. And historically speaking there is some truth to this. However what is often left out of this critique is the degree to which governments encourage environmentally damaging actions.
Almost invariably serious environmental degradation happens as a result of a lack of property rights. (In one form or another.) This is not always true by any means but it is generally true. Those areas where no one has any responsibility, where no one is held accountable, are often the most polluted. Oceans, rivers, remote rain forests are all commons and as such are abused.
Such abuse can also happen in instances where the responsible party is the government too. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were horribly polluted because though the state did technically have responsibility for areas which were polluted, it had no check. To whom could poisoned people turn? Soviet courts? Good luck.
In China there is an economy which is not entirely driven by planners like in the Soviet Union but one which is to a large degree driven by planners. So called “state capitalism.”
In the quest for wealth and status the interests of individual Chinese citizens are of generally marginal concern. If 7% GDP growth means air which tastes like metal, then, often, so be it. At least this was the case for a long time. Now pollution has gotten so bad it can’t be dismissed. People are dying.*
From The Economist:
Pollution is sky-high everywhere in China. Some 83% of Chinese are exposed to air that, in America, would be deemed by the Environmental Protection Agency either to be unhealthy or unhealthy for sensitive groups. Almost half the population of China experiences levels of PM2.5 that are above America’s highest threshold. That is even worse than the satellite data had suggested.Berkeley Earth’s scientific director, Richard Muller, says breathing Beijing’s air is the equivalent of smoking almost 40 cigarettes a day and calculates that air pollution causes 1.6m deaths a year in China, or 17% of the total.
*Interestingly at least some in the Chinese policy world recognize the damage a lack of property rights has done to the environment. As The Economist in another article explains;
Second, the government has its eye on bringing market influences into its planning for the environment. But, for the purposes of controlling land, rivers and other natural assets, China is still a communist country: these assets are collectively owned. To square the circle, China’s green planners have decided to separate ownership from control (or use)—and make usage rights tradable whereas ownership will remain collective. But for all that to happen, ownership rights need to be clear.
A consequence of these two ideas would be the creation of a potentially powerful new body to regulate usage rights. At the moment, ownership and control are diffuse. The new plan says that “one body will be established to carry out the unified exercise of ownership rights for all types of natural resources.” In theory, such an institution could end up running half the country—and run into fierce opposition from vested interests.
Clear rights would be a great start. But a very tall order. Almost as tall as clear air. Check that, likely taller in China under the current regime.
Hat tip: BadBlue News.