In conversations with many environmentalists (and others) I often hear the comment that capitalism (and market-based economics more generally) is leading to the destruction of the planet. After a little prodding, I realize that what most of these people are referring to is not capitalism, but industrialization: the development of industry on an extensive scale.

The key point is that industrialization is not unique to capitalism; the Soviet Union followed a path of heavy industrialization for almost 70 years, during which time its destruction of the natural environment was much greater than in capitalist societies. In fact, Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union are still dealing with the effects of decades of extreme environmental neglect.

Of course, capitalism developed alongside the Industrial Revolution in Europe, and the two are intimately linked. Capitalist market economies have been the most effective at producing sustained periods of economic growth, and hence industrial capacity. But unlike societies in which industry is largely state-owned, capitalist societies allow for much greater flexibility and a wider range of innovation; centralized control of industrial production is not conducive to creative thinking and entrepreneurial activity.

This has big implications for the environment.

It is within capitalist and market-based societies that we have the greatest ability to change trajectories in production, bring new technologies on line, and respond to shifts in consumer demand. These are keys to a future where the environment is better protected. It is not guaranteed within capitalist societies, but the potential is always there if the political will exists to ensure that the negative environmental effects of industrialization are taken into account by producers so that incentives exist to shift towards cleaner technologies.

I suggest that environmentalists refine their arguments. If they are opposed to industrialization then they need to be very precise about this, since with malls, television, and mass consumerism also comes electricity, heating, better diets, longer life span, and an overall much improved standard of living. It is one thing to oppose wanton environmental destruction, but another to oppose material progress altogether.

In addition, if one is committed to ideas of freedom and liberty then one has to recognize that it is often difficult to separate the “bad” products of industrialization from the “good,” since last time I checked most environmentalists weren’t living with just the basics for survival.