Thursday, February 13, 2003

Patrick Crozier over at Transport Blog asks if pollution has really fallen over the years, and if so, why?. I have a couple of thoughts in pollution. I think in rich world cities, pollution has definitely declined, and there are two main reasons for this. The first is that the richer societies become the more they care about it and the more money they have to spend on reducing it. This makes perfect economic sense. If you think you will live to 80, it does make sense to spend money on avoiding inhaling carcinogens now, whereas it makes less sense if you are unsure if you will have enough to eat next Tuesday.

The other reason is more interesting, and it is simply that industrially speaking, pollution indicates inefficiency. Resources are being wasted on creating black smoke when they could be used to make something useful. As our machines become more technologically sophisticated, they are less polluting as a biproduct of that sophistication.

(Our cities are also clearly becoming cleaner as their economies become more and more about services and less and less about goods, but that is a harder question to consider. It is harder to say whether pollution is actually being reduced or if it is being merely moved somewhere else).

As an interesting side effect of our less polluted cities, look at all the residential developments occurring around rivers and harbours. Most cities have been founded near a body of water of some sort, and in the days when the cities were actually founded, next to the water was the fashionable place to live. However, industrialisation came, and bodies of water became polluted as a consequence. The fashionable places to live then moved away from the water. Now, however, the water is no longer polluted, and we see lots of residential developments beside the water again. (This has been aided by the advent of container shipping, which means that port facilities are now so massive that you can no longer fit them in the hearts of cities (unless you are somewhere with a truly massive watercourse going through your city like Hamburg) and there is therefore lots of space that needs redeveloping. However, there is more to the story than this).

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