Guitarist from Queen inadvertently makes argument capitalism will save the world

July 31, 2023

By Tim Worstall

Sir Brian May was the rock god guitarist in Queen, is now a knight and has a Ph.D. in astrophysics. This means we should pay attention to his ideas even if not swallow them entirely whole:

“It’s not just about climate change; it’s about the way we’re polluting the earth and covering it in concrete and basically pretty much eliminating all species except the ones that we think are useful to us. So I think we need a major, major change of philosophy in the way we treat the other creatures with which we share this planet.”

This is not true. Yes, there are species under threat. Yes, there is entirely too much concrete in our environment. And yes, there are people who need to change their attitudes and philosophy. Fortunately, we already know how to do that:  allow people to get rich, and attitudes will change.

Those New England forests where everyone goes to watch the leaves turn in a few weeks? In the 1920s, it was all clear-cut. It’s only since modern farming emerged on the Great Plains that those hardscrabble farms were abandoned, and the trees came back. It’s all regrowth over the past century. Sir Brian’s house sits on The River Thames near London. When he was born, that river was dead; the only living thing was human fecal bacteria. Now, it has salmon. OK, not many, but that’s an improvement.

There’s a formal name for this, the Kuznets Curve. When people are scrabbling to eat, they will indeed destroy the environment around them. Richer people are willing to spend some of that greater wealth on cleaning the place up. This has happened everywhere people have got richer – in Europe, North America, Australia, and so on.

It gets cleaned up by controlling pollution, of course, but also by using better farming techniques. Pesticides, fertilizers, they’re substitutes for land. So, as we use more of them, we reduce the land we use for food. That’s why we can feed people from those farms in the Midwest and also put aside land for the bison again. Heck, we’ve enough land left over now that we can have the deer and the wolves back as well.

When we get past worrying about what’s for lunch, we can – and we do – spend that increased wealth on limiting our damage to the environment around us. So, if we want to have a cleaner environment, then we all need to get rich. The “all” is the important thing.

As for killing wildlife and destroying forests, they are happening in those places where people are still dirt poor. Those floods in Pakistan earlier this year were the result of extreme poverty that led people to cut down forests. Pakistan really is poor. By the usual economic measures of GDP, the United States has never been that poor, not once since 1776.

The worry – that we’re ruining the planet – is indeed something to worry about. But we also know the solution. Rich people, such as us, that live well in the modern world, have both the money and the desire to protect that gorgeous world out there. So, we do.

The task is for everyone to get as rich as we are, then everyone will act like we do. We got rich through capitalism and free markets.  No socialist country has ever gotten rich although many have gotten very poor.

Protect the Earth? There is no Planet B? Capitalism and markets for the win then. Crazy thing, most un-Bohemian, but entirely true.


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