Development vs. Environment in Asia - OPINION
[Excerpted from The Earth Times, 04 February 1997]

Does economic growth have to conflict with the environment?

by James W. Michaels, Editor of Forbes Magazine
(c) Earth Times News Service

I was looking forward to visiting Shanghai's wonder-filled new museum and had reserved the last day of my business visit there last autumn for a bit of culture. I never got to the museum. A week of breathing the heavy polluted air of eastern China did me in. My last full day in Shanghai was spent in my hotel room.

I returned to New York and read that pollution threatens India's magnificent Taj Mahal.

It is an all too common experience. Mexico City is one of my favorite spots on earth but I rarely go there these days: At my age, I can't handle the bad air. My eyes water and I cough. I of course can pick up and go. Millions of people cannot. As an American who has travelled in Asia for more than half a century and who has many friends there, I'm thrilled to witness the dynamic economic development that is transforming ancient societies.

However much one may yearn for the good old days one does not want to return to the time when life expectancy was 40 years, when famines were frequent and chances for economic and social advancement were almost non-existent. The picturesque nature of the old societies was paid for with appalling infant mortality.

Then, three cheers for industrialization. China is telescoping into a few years, the industrial and economic progress that took a century to accomplish in the West. Southeast Asia is fast leaving behind its bucolic past. India, preindustrial 50 years ago, has become a major producer of computer software. In parts of Asia, the grandchildren of rickshaw coolies are electronic engineers. China's emergence as an industrial power, and India's, means a better life, not just for a privileged handful but for a couple of billion people. No one who has witnessed the changes of recent years can believe that small is beautiful or that peasants are better off living in a state of nature.

But need we lose the Taj Mahal? Perhaps it is arrogant for someone who has come from an industrialized country with a high standard of living to suggest that India and Mexico and China and the rest of the modernizing countries should modify the pace of development in the interest of preserving the environment. But we must never forget that industrialization is not an end in itself but rather a means of improving the living standards of the masses of people.

In this respect, healthy living conditions are as important as better nutrition, more leisure time and better medical care. Unless you pay heed to the environment, you extend life on one hand and shorten it on the other. You improve living standards and lower living conditions.

This is a question of democracy. Where ordinary people have a voice in the matter they are almost always willing to trade off a bit of economic growth against environmental amenities. The most democratic nations seem to be the ones paying the most attention to environment. In eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where the rulers cared little for public opinion, environmental conditions were deplorable. The successor governments are still trying to rid themselves of those stinking little Trabants that the socialists fobbed off on their subjects in place of modern automobiles. By contrast, in New York and in London and in most of the industrial democracies, the air is more breathable than it was a quarter of a century ago.

Given the choice, ordinary people care about the environment. It is fair to say that a measure of democracy is the degree to which the rulers pay heed to this yearning.

Of course you cannot have industry without accepting a certain amount of pollution, but experience in the West has shown that clean air and modern capitalism are not incompatible. There are plenty of ways to use market incentives sufficiently; we depend too much on command-and-control environmentalism. But it is absolutely clear that environmentalism and free market capitalism can be friends.

Unfortunately environmentalism has gotten something of a bad name from a handful of fanatics who literally try to stop progress. In the name of protecting the environment they try to thrust on the world some strange pantheistic vision. They put trees and rocks before people. But environmentalism needn't rest on the idea that man is a desecrator of God's earth. It is defensible and desirable for what it can do for the human race.

The bad air that had my eyes watering in Shanghai reduces the productivity and shortens the lives of the inhabitants who, unlike visitors, can't jet away. I'm willing to bet that in the long run you will get more efficient industrialization if you protect the environment as you go. Not only is sound environmentalism compatible with economic efficiency, it is a precondition for maximum efficiency.

In short, economic growth and sound environmental practices are not opposed. Quite the contrary, they supplement each other. Each contributes to a betterment in living standards. Too bad we don't have a statistical index that counts environmental improvement as an element in economic growth. It would go a long way in helping us get our priorities right.