If the internal combustion engine had never been invented, would food preservatives be even more advanced today?

Café Hayek’s Don Boudreaux made an interesting argument in a letter he wrote to the Wall Street Journal:

industrial capitalism is history’s greatest anti-pollutant. Asphalt and automobiles, for example, combine to cleanse our cities and towns of the bacteria and insects (and stench) that are inseparable from animal-powered transportation. The petroleum used to make asphalt and to power automobiles is used also to make plastic wraps that keep our foods unpolluted, and to produce pharmaceuticals that keep our bodies cleaner and healthier.

To list all of the ways that industrial capitalism depollutes our environment requires several volumes. Yet we need only look around our homes for compelling evidence — evidence in the form of the solid (i.e., non-thatched) roofs above our heads and solid (i.e., non-dirt) floors beneath our feet; potable water running from faucets; indoor plumbing; antibacterial ointments and antibiotics; refrigerators and freezers and laundry detergents and automatic washing machines and vacuum cleaners and light bulbs and gas cooktops and electric heat-pumps…. The list of ways in which the developed world has been cleaned by capitalism is practically endless.

I think an enviro would argue that, while the automobile and modern pharmaceuticals might create an immediate, localized improvement, the long-term seepage of waste from those goods wipes out that improvement.

That’s an interesting little political tactic, by the way: make whatever crisis you’re trying to fix long-term in nature. That way it’s more hypothetical, harder to measure, and doesn’t require actual proof.

I also think an intelligent, ready-to-debate enviro would argue: they don’t want to go back to horses and thatch and non-refrigerated food; they just want to spend lots more money on technology that doesn’t seep into the environment.

No, wait, they wouldn’t argue that. They’d argue that it’ll actually be cheaper. In the long term. They’d argue (I think) that there’s a way to have the benefits of modern society with no drawbacks, if only we’d spend enough.

(Posted by The TrogloPundit.)

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