Whale oil provided the lighting to read the breakthrough novel of 1870, the story of Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. That was also the year of the foundation of Standard Oil. The result of that foundation is that we didn’t hunt the whales to extinction, but instead turned to kerosene to light the latter part of the 19th century, moving to electricity only in the 20th.
It really isn’t hyperbole to insist that John D. Rockefeller saved the whales by his making mineral oil products so much cheaper than the cetacean-derived equivalent. And that’s really all you need to know to understand Earth Day and what to do about it.
We need to be as viciously capitalist and free market as we can to save the planet.
This is not, as you will note, what is generally said about this day of celebration of all things environmental. Yet it’s still the truth.
One thing noted by Simon Kuznets was that poor people, truly poor, don’t give a damn about the environment. Forests are burnt down, rivers clogged with sewage, animals hunted to extinction, (the megafauna of every continent and island group underwent catastrophic extinctions just after man first arrived. This is not a coincidence) just because everyone’s too busy finding dinner for that day – or avoiding being something else’s dinner. Kuznets went on to note that richer people care and do more about the preservation of the natural world — partly because we all just like looking at it knowing that it’s there, partly because richer people can have a longer time horizon.
This observation has been codified as the environmental Kuznets curve, and the switch to the environment getting better as incomes rise, well, there’s a bit of argument about that. Generally around the $8,000 to $10,000 per person per year range for GDP when people start to care about the environment. That’s about the average income in the world today. Back in the 1960s, the U.S. was at that level (when expressed in today’s money). That was around when we decided that after a century of the Cuyahoga River catching fire maybe we should stop doing that? We became rich enough to do so.
So, if we want the environment to get better, Mother Earth to heal her wounds, Gaia to recover, etc., we need to go pell for leather in making the world’s poorest as rich as possible as fast as possible. That’s the pre-condition for people to care enough to do all of those things which we know will benefit the environment.
The excellent news is we know how to do that.