The Burning Cuyahoga and the Environmental Kuznets Curve

Ah, the aroma of burning river, a whiff of our idyllic past.

Between 1868 and 1969, the Cuyahoga River burned at least 13 times (Wikipedia), the worst of which occurred in 1952, although the 1969 fire (much smaller than 1952) inspired a Time article that catalyzed the environmental movement. The cause of these fires were heavy oil slicks and other flammable materials, including trash, floating on the river’s surface. For those who think that terrible pollution is a 20th and 21st Century problem, it is interesting to note that the first recorded fire on the river was witnessed three years after the end of the American Civil War.

Today the Cuyahoga River is doing much, much better. “River reaches that were once devoid of fish now support 44 species. The…survey in 2008 revealed the two most common species in the river were hogsuckers and spotfin shiners, both moderately sensitive to water quality. Habitat issues within the 5.6 miles (9.0 km) navigation channel still preclude a robust fishery in that reach. Recreation water quality standards (using bacteria as indicators) are generally met during dry weather conditions, but are often exceeded during significant rains due to nonpoint sources and combined sewer overflows.” (Wikipedia)

While not perfect, this improvement reflects general improvements in most environmental indicators of pollution in developed countries like the United States, Japan, Australia and Western Europe. In the early days of industrialization, these countries poured the excrement of their factories in the most convenient river, lake or ocean. But as citizens got richer and wealth spread–basic needs met by a growing economy–rampant pollution became unacceptable. Citizens wouldn’t stand for it.

So rivers burn and people become outraged…and a Republican president creates the Environmental Protection Agency. Today there is much less pollution in the developed world then there was 50 years ago (C02 and other greenhouse gasses being important exceptions). Today pollution problems are much worse in rising countries like China and India. And it should be no surprise that China, especially, is making environmental cleanup a major priority. Forty years ago China was still gripped in its self-destructive Cultural Revolution. Who cares about air pollution when hundreds of thousands of people are dying? Now the notorious Beijing air is a top priority as most Chinese no longer just eke out a living.

This pattern–develop, pollute, enrich, reform–is described by the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC). While controversial, it has been studied quite a bit and makes intuitive sense. At the start of development, countries focus on production at any costs. Tire factory in a poor country? Just blast the noxious smoke into the air to float away. But as the tire workers became richer and their children went to school, survival was not longer the number-one priority. The persistent hacking of family members led to complaints to a local bureaucrat, and thus, usually in fits and failures and eventual successes, an environmental movement emerges.

Yes, this is too neat, and Bhopals and Chernobyls loom large in the story of pollution in developing countries. Nonetheless, the clean-up of the Cuyahoga and thousands of rivers like it in developed countries speak to some important truths. People complaining to officials works. And one source of the complaints is relative affluence.

How the EKC works–When per capita Gross Domestic Product reaches somewhere in the neighborhood of $4000, pollution decreases as the pressures from the “rising” locals force better environmental protections, especially for improved air quality (dioxides and particulate matter). However, the EKC is a moderately crude model. Rising wages is not the only, or even primary, driver of environmental change; access to property rights, rule of law, fair elections–civil society–are crucial. Chernobyl happened in a totalitarian state. Nuclear energy has caused very few deaths in rich countries yet strong environmental groups and constituencies keep nuclear energy relatively small. That’s power.

As Yandle et al. point out in an paper about the EKC: When ordinary people have political power, civil rights as well as economic rights, air and water quality improves in richer and poorer countries.

So the affluence brought by development is a powerful driver of eventual environmental improvement, but political power and civil rights are virtually necessary for these improvements, too.

One thought on “The Burning Cuyahoga and the Environmental Kuznets Curve

  1. Pollution is a problem that wealthy nations can afford to address. Poor nations have bigger problems to address – famine, child mortality, economic opportunity, responsible governance.

    Want to reduce pollution? Work to increase the wealth of the poor nations of the world. When the choice is between a nation’s ability to feed itself or eliminating chemicals in rivers – the hungry take precedence. As it should.

    Unfortunately, our foreign and trade policy with the poor nations of the world are not as effective as they could be. Our government alone isn’t a solution. But certainly the governments of some of these poor nations are part of their problem.


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