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Cleansed by capitalism

| Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Many people today feel that modern economic growth makes our world more polluted. Consider, however, historian William Manchester's description of the typical dwelling of a prosperous medieval European peasant:

"Lying at the end of a narrow, muddy lane, his rambling edifice of thatch, wattles, mud, and dirty brown wood was almost obscured by a towering dung heap in what, without it, would have been the front yard. The building was large, for it was more than a dwelling. Beneath its sagging roof were a pigpen, a henhouse, cattle sheds, corncribs, straw and hay, and, last and least, the family's apartment, actually a single room whose walls and timbers were coated with soot. According to Erasmus, who examined such huts, 'almost all the floors are of clay and rushes from the marshes, so carelessly renewed that the foundation sometimes remains for twenty years, harboring, there below, spittle and vomit and wine of dogs and men, beer ... remnants of fishes, and other filth unnameable.'"

Now that's polluted!

Innovative capitalism so thoroughly protects us from such up-close, personal and pestilential pollution that we are now free to worry about more distant and speculative environmental problems. Even if we grant that anxiety over the likes of climate change and species loss is justified, it's imperative to understand that our preindustrial ancestors would have given their teeth (if they still had any in their heads) for the privilege of fretting about the environmental issues that concern us today.

The very same capitalism and industry that is blamed for raising the Earth's average temperature a bit is the greatest anti-pollutant in human history. By far.

For evidence, simply look down at the floor beneath you. If you're in your home, school or place of work, you're not standing on "clay or rushes from the marshes." You're standing on a hard surface that separates you from the raw, dirty Earth. Insects and vegetation are thus kept from crawling unimpaired onto you while you eat or sleep.

Our ancestors enjoyed no such sanitation. They were denied what is for us the utterly mundane solid floor because our ancestors were too poor to afford such a luxury.

Chopping and planing wood and then installing it as flooring -- or constructing flooring from ceramics or stones or cement -- was too expensive for all but the pre-capitalist "1 percent" (the nobility and clergy) to afford. Capitalism, though, has made solid flooring almost universally available.

Another marvelous source of capitalist cleanliness is the combination of asphalt and the automobile -- both of which, it is true, depend heavily upon petroleum.

Until about 100 years ago, almost all streets in towns and cities were trenches of filth. Save for the few that were paved with cobblestones or planked, street surfaces were mud and dirt.

This mud and dirt mixed noxiously with the emissions from horses and other draught animals that people used to transport themselves and their freight. According to the New York City Board of Health, in the late 1890s more than 500 tons of horse manure were dropped daily on the streets of Gotham. And while the city employed workers to collect and dispose of this filth -- along with the carcasses of dead horses -- much of it remained. It was turned into a nasty slurry by rain or snow, and into an awful dust by sun and wind. And in summer it always attracted great swarms of flies.

Asphalt and the automobile have eliminated these terrible, up-close pollutants.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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