Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Free Markets Are an Anti-Pollutant

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pollution-cleanedAlthough Earth Day 2016 has officially ended, the call for Christians to care for the Earth continues. For us, every day is Earth day.

Too often, though, we Christians don’t have a robust enough understanding of how to care for the environment or how that duty is connected to economics.

A decade ago, Acton research fellow Jordan Ballor wrote the best, brief explanation you’ll ever find on the connection between economics and environmental stewardship. As Ballor says, economics can be understood as the theoretical side of stewardship, and stewardship can be understood as the practical side of economics.

Far from being a discipline that explains all of human existence, in the biblical view, as we saw in the case of the shrewd manager, economics is the thoughtful ordering of the material resources of a household or social unit toward the self-identified good end. Thus, if we hold a biblical view of economics and stewardship, we will not be tempted to divorce the two concepts but instead will see them as united.

On a larger scale, then, economics must play an important role in decisions about environmental stewardship. Economics helps us rightly order our stewardship.

One of the ways in which economics helps us rightly order environmental stewardship is by helping us deal with tradeoffs. While the free market system doesn’t provide a perfect or foolproof means for dealing with such tradeoffs, it has tended to lead to greater overall human flourishing.

As economist Donald Boudreaux recently explained, free markets are “replacing more immediate and more lethal forms of environmental pollution for less immediate and less lethal forms.”

In July 1924, Calvin Coolidge Jr., the President’s 16-year-old son, died of an infection from a toe blister he got playing tennis on the White House lawn. The bacteria that took young Calvin’s life is staphylococcus aureus, known as “staph.”

Bacteria are one of history’s most lethal contaminants. They’ve incapacitated and killed untold millions of people throughout the millennia, perhaps most famously 700 years ago when the Black Death plagued Europe, Asia, and Africa. This bacteria killed an estimated 20 percent of the world’s population in the 14th century. Yet, as young Coolidge’s fate shows, within the lifetimes of some still alive bacteria remained extraordinarily dangerous even to the wealthiest people on Earth.

No longer. While bacteria still cause some deaths especially in poor countries, those of us in market economies are largely protected from this terrible environmental pollutant.

Keep this happy fact in mind on Earth Day. Contrary to popular myth, the environment over the past 200 years has become less polluted and toxic for humans.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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