Sharon Begley: It is no coincidence that some of the dirtiest industrial operations are falling victim to the global recession. Over the past two decades, much of the world's manufacturing moved to where pollution standards are little more than mild suggestions. Since small, corner-cutting, inefficient facilities tend to both flout pollution laws and be most vulnerable to a sudden drop in demand, the global recession has hit such operations especially hard. Thousands of factories in China's Pearl River Delta have shut their doors since late last year, for instance; output of autos, electronics and other goods from factories in Mexico's Ciudad Juárez, Monterrey and Toluca has fallen so sharply that the amount of cargo trucked across the U.S. border has dropped 40 percent. In India, enough small steel-rolling mills around Delhi have closed that levels of sulfur dioxide (which forms acid rain) fell 85 percent in October 2008 compared with a year earlier. The recession is bringing a green dividend in the developed world, too. Reduced economic activity is projected to cut Europe's emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief man-made greenhouse gas, by 100 million tons in 2009, and the United States' by about the same amount.
Recession is not exactly a long-term environmental strategy, obviously. The challenge is to use the downturn to deemphasize manufacturing in favor of cleaner economic activity, and to reengineer what survives so that when the economy revs up it's not at the environment's expense.
Can someone explain what that last sentence means? The paranoid fear of manufacturing is really getting out of control in some quarters. The simple fact is that industrialization improves the human condition, including life expectancies, most everywhere it occurs. In a recent post I noted how the much maligned city of Beijing, a place so polluted that one often can't see from one building to the next, has experienced a 30 year increase in life expectancy just about a half century!
The Chinese realize that such improvements are the result of the benefits of industrialization, even if we don't.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that we couldn't make manufacturing better or cleaner, but the idea of "deemphasiz[ing] manufacturing in favor of cleaner economic activity" is crazy talk, at least if we value our computers, TV's, furniture, iPods, cell phones, prescription medications, automobiles, etc.