Apr
30
2007

Industrial wealth makes for cleaner cities

We're #5!  Minneapolis-St.Paul is ranked as the fifth cleanest city in the world: Photo by kevinthoule at flickr.com
We're #5! Minneapolis-St.Paul is ranked as the fifth cleanest city in the world: Photo by kevinthoule at flickr.com

Forbes magazine has an article on the world’s 25 cleanest cities. Minneapolis comes it at #5.

The list comes from studies conducted by the Mercer Human Resources Consulting which rate quality of living in various cities. They looked at things like producing sufficient energy cleanly, handling waste responsibly, encouraging recycling, and efficient transportation.
According to the article:

It is interesting to note that size does not appear to be a factor either in terms of size of population or physical size of the city. The most common trait in common to each is a focus on high tech, education and headquartering of national and international companies along with an extensive public transit system.

The ecotality blog notices something interesting – all of the top 25 are in industrialized democracies. Normally, we think of industry as being very dirty. But writer Bill Hobbs suggests that

“…industrialization created wealth which, in turn, buys the things (mass transit, especially) and pays for the policies that create a cleaner environment.”

I would add that, in democracies, citizens can pressure government and business to pass laws protecting the environment. The actions necessary to make a clean city require money and political will. Clearly, capitalism is good for the environment!

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Too bad we are so dirty we aren't first. We should try to do a lot better. There is always more ways to make ourselves and our communities cleaner and safer. Fifth place is still much better than last place. Last place would be harsh. :)

posted on Mon, 04/30/2007 - 6:26pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Oh c'mon Gene, I think you're making a bit of a tautological leap there in the last line of your post.

Clearly, capitalism is good for the environment!

Maybe you're being glib, but I would say that a good deal of the environmental positives that we enjoy here in the Twin Cities are the result of regular citizens making choices that at times ignore the bottom line and the value of a dollar.

I specifically look at our growing system of bike trails. These are not the result of capitalism or market forces but good policy, community action, and volunteerism. While you could argue that these traits are common in capitalism, I don't think you can definitively say they are the result of capitalism.

Glad we're green...let's just put credit where credit's due.

posted on Fri, 05/04/2007 - 10:45am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

What -- Gene be glib? ;-) Of course! But not without a heavy dose of truth. I am reminded of a bit of dialog from the TV show Friends:

Ross: "Money just isn't an issue for me."
Rachel: "That's because you have it."

In other words, you can only afford to do things that ignore the bottom line when your bottom line is in pretty good shape.

As the original linked article notes, poverty leads to subsistence practices which are extremely damaging to the environment. Living clean costs money. Capitalism creates wealth. Thus, only wealthy, capitalist countries can afford the efforts that lead to a clean environment.

A perfect one-to-one correlation? No. But then, little in human affairs is. Nevertheless, the most efficient and effective way to improve the environment in a polluted city or country is to raise the standard of living to the point where they can afford the amenities and regulations that lead to a cleaner style of living.

Bike trails, public transportation, toxic clean-ups -- these all cost money. Where do you suppose that money comes from?

posted on Fri, 05/04/2007 - 2:33pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Bike trails, public transportation, toxic clean-ups...
Those do cost money.

But we sometimes act like those things are frivolous extras, of little value to society as a whole.

For example, letters to the editor complaining about subsidies to public transportation always drive me nuts. The writers seem to be assuming that building and maintaining roads is free? Or that policing them has no cost? Or that emissions from cars magically disappear and no one ends up paying for any of their effects? No. Driving is subsidized in hundreds of little ways. For some people driving is the only option. For some it's a choice. And for some it's not necessary. We don't have to put value-laden judgements on drivers or non-drivers. But if we're going to subsidize roads, shouldn't we also make it possible for those who CAN get around without cars to do so? (It makes getting around, parking, and breathing easier for all of us.) Sure, we can argue that budgets are tight, and we have to prioritize, but let's be honest about costs and take them ALL into account.

And there ARE technological leaps, as well as incremental improvements.

In the third world you could, through subsidy or one-time donation, give highly-efficient solar cookers to everyone in a suitable climate who's now cooking over a wood fire. You could reduce deforestation, time spent collecting firewood, and particulates in the air. All three of those things have costs, too; they're just costs that usually aren't figured into the price of doing business.

In the US you could, through carrots or sticks, get all businesses and governments to use compact fluorescent light bulbs, use building codes to ensure that new construction is done to a higher standard, conservation-wise, and really encourage the use of energy efficient appliances and vehicles. It would make a difference.

The really tricky part is the gray area in between, where people are wealthy enough to have cars and an insatiable need for electricity, but aren't wealthy enough to afford the latest technology.

So THAT's where I agree with you.

Somehow we have to develop clean technologies--for power production, transportation, whatever--and make them inexpensive enough for developing countries to adopt them. After all, demand for electricity isn't likely to go down, even if we get better at conservation, and more people are going to be driving, even as cities get denser, so we're going to have to figure out how to do things more efficiently and cleanly. That's likely to involve a lot of different strategies and sources, and conservation along the way.

And let's not assume that the drive for a clean environment comes only from wealthy nations. Advances can happen anywhere there is support for them.

posted on Fri, 05/04/2007 - 3:37pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

As someone who never owned a car -- or even learned how to drive -- until his mid-40s, I am totally in favor of public transportation. I never meant to imply otherwise.

My main point is this: people have certain needs. The most basic are things like food, shelter, clean water. The next level of needs -- well, different people have different opinions, but I would say health, education, an opportunity to make a living. And once those needs are met, then we can move on to more specialized things, like bike paths, public transportation and solar cookers.

So, I wouldn't call them "frivolous extras of little value." They have value. But they are further down the list. Many poor countries can't afford the basics of life, let alone clean technologies. They need money. Capitalism -- which, I admit, has its problems -- is the best system of wealth-creation ever devised. It has allowed industrialized nations to develop clean technology, and it can help developing nations afford it.

You say

Advances can happen anywhere there is support for them.

Support alone is not enough. Technological leaps occur where there are resources and opportunities, as well as support. There are lots of intelligent, educated people in, say, Mali. But they are not going to develop a hydrogen-powered car. To do that, you need research laboratories and industrial infrastructure, things that require billions of dollars of capital that they just don't have.

I totally agree -- solar cookers would be a tremendous boon for the environment in developing nations. Let's say we wanted 80 or 90 million cookers for sub-Saharan Africa -- roughly 1 per every 10 people. That's doable -- provided you have the concentrated wealth to bring skilled people, raw material, and industrial infrastructure together in one place; and provided you have an opportunity for the manufacturer to recoup his investment. Otherwise, why spend the money making or even inventing the things? Wealth and opportunity are two things capitalism provides better than any other system ever devised.

(Even if we wanted to give the cookers away, we would still need to subsidize the costs. That money would come from the government, which gets it from citizens, who are earning enough money to be able to afford this kind of largess.)

But, why should we be the lucky ones, enjoying a high standard of living while other people remain poor, if slightly cleaner? Better to help them develop the democratic and capitalist institutions that allow them to invent their own solutions, and create a better, cleaner life for themselves.

Making clean technology affordable is an important goal. But more important, I think, is raising the standard of living in the developing world, so that they can afford clean technology in the first place.

posted on Fri, 05/04/2007 - 7:03pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Gene, my rant about roads wasn't directed at you. Or anyone in particular, actually. It was just an observation.

It's comforting, in some ways, to think that technological advancement requires infrastructure that no third world nation has. But it seems like all sorts of less-than-first-world countries are acquiring or trying to get nuclear weapons, for example. So I think that "support" can sometimes just mean a government with interest in a particular technology. And that can happen just about anywhere. (I do, however, agree with you that clean energy advancements are not LIKELY to happen in such a place.)

And I totally agree with your last point:

"Making clean technology affordable is an important goal. But more important, I think, is raising the standard of living in the developing world, so that they can afford clean technology in the first place."

Microloans?

posted on Fri, 05/04/2007 - 7:56pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Really?? Thats cool! Thanks for the new city fact!! I never knew that!!

posted on Sat, 09/01/2007 - 3:50pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

dude that rocks!!!! i love clean

posted on Sun, 09/30/2007 - 3:06pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

A new report from the UN states that human life is improving on many fronts -- life expectancy, political freedom, economics, even environmental quality -- due in large part to capitalism, free markets and global trade. These things are not perfect -- nothing made by humans ever is -- but they are having a tremendous positive effect world-wide.

posted on Fri, 10/05/2007 - 11:02am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Another example of how market forces protect the environment: elephants thrive in countries where they are privately owned, and are decimated in countries where they are not.

posted on Thu, 03/20/2008 - 3:27pm

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