Of Fossil Fuels, Forests, and the Future of Prosperity
By Art Carden
We live on a heavily-wooded suburban lot in Hoover, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham, surrounded by neighbors and a very short drive from Samford. Periodically, we’ll roast hot dogs over sticks and branches we find in the yard (see “heavily-wooded”) in a fire pit on the back porch.
Every time we do this, I reflect on what modernity has wrought. It’s fun to cook food over branches, leaves, and discarded paper, but were it not for fossil fuels my guess is that the lands around us would be denuded in pretty short order, even by a much smaller population at a much lower standard of living.
In addition, we would probably have more respiratory illnesses. A fire pit produces a pleasant, smokey scent, and I’m happy to provide that positive externality for the neighborhood. If everyone had to rely on wood fires rather than natural gas for heating and cooking, however, I suspect the air around us would be much less pleasant.
Watching a pit full of sticks and leaves get consumed by flames and watching smoke billow up into the air also makes me think about the future of prosperity and where we might be able to push production possibilities. How, in the future, will people figure out how to turn garbage–the smoke and soot fire generates–into a resource? I’ll go ahead and make myself vulnerable to an argumentum ad Monsantum and ask how far we are from developing foods that produce less waste both throughout the food supply chain and after they’ve been consumed and processed by the body.
So drink deep from the cup of the Great Conversation. Michael Munger discussed this in the context of recycling in one of my favorite EconTalk podcasts. Ed Glaeser explains why a condo in Manhattan is probably a lot greener than my heavily-wooded suburban lot. If you haven’t read it yet, Richard McKenzie explains how driving might actually be less pollution-intensive than walking in this month’s EconLog featured essay. In this brief talk, Matt Ridley explains “How Fossil Fuels are Greening the Planet.”