Every year on Earth Day we learn how bad humanity's economic development is for the health of the planet. But maybe this is the wrong message. Maybe we should instead reflect on how human progress, even use of fossil fuels, has made our environment cleaner and healthier. Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress explains.
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Every year on Earth Day, we're supposed to reflect on all the ways we've made the planet worse. But what if we try something different? What if we reflect on all the ways we've made the planet better?
Try this thought experiment:
Imagine that we transported someone from three hundred years ago, at the very start of the Industrial Revolution, to today's world. What would he think about our environment? Without question, his reaction would be one of disbelief; not that we had destroyed his pristine, natural world, but that such a clean, healthy environment was possible.
"The air is so clean," our time traveler might say. "Where I come from, we're breathing in smoke all day from the fire we need to burn in our furnaces and stoves."
"And the water. Everywhere I go, the water tastes so fresh, and it's all safe to drink. On my farm, we get our water from a brook we share with animals, and my kids are always getting sick."
"And then the weather. I mean, the weather isn't that much different, but you're so much safer in it; you can move a knob and make it cool when it's hot, and warm when it's cold."
"And what happened to all the disease? In my time, we had insects everywhere giving us disease -- my neighbor's son died of malaria -- and you don't seem to have any of that here. What's your secret?"
I'd tell him that the secret was energy, specifically energy derived from fossil fuels -- oil, coal and natural gas. These fuels power machines that allow us to transform our naturally hazardous environment into a far healthier environment. Most of the natural world is too hot or too cold, has too much rainfall or not enough. Then there's bacteria-filled water, disease carrying insects, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, to name just few of nature's other unpleasant features.
As our time traveler noted, 300 years ago human beings spent a lot of time breathing polluted air from indoor fires. As unhealthy as it was, it was worth the warmth. But we've been able to conquer all these environmental hazards. We've drained swamps, reclaimed land, cleared forests, built roads, constructed glass and steel skyscrapers. We've irrigated deserts, developed fertilizers and pesticides, linked oceans -- all of it in humanity's incredibly successful effort to create a safer, cleaner, more habitable world. And we did most of this using machines running on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy from fossil fuels.
To be sure, using that energy has carried risks and created negative by-products. But thanks to technology, we get better and better at minimizing and neutralizing those risks. Los Angeles was once smog city. Now its air is cleaner than it's been in decades. London's Thames River was once clogged with sewage; now it's clean.
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