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Economic Growth and the Environment: Not-So Strange Bedfellows

Article by Michael McMahan February 13, 2013 //   4 minute read

Political pundits try to marry environmentalism to one end of the political spectrum and  free market economics to the other. The problem with this is that they aren’t at opposite ends of any spectrum. This is evident to anyone attending this week’s Engineering and Humanity Week at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, sponsored by Hunter and Stephanie Hunt and SMU's Lyle School of Engineering. Located smack dab in the middle of SMU’s beautiful campus, the Living Village at SMU is literally home to several students and faculty members during this week-long exposition. Students and faculty members have designed and built sustainable housing units that are prototypes for affordable housing solutions for the world’s poor and refugees. So how does this work hand-in-hand with free market economics and economic growth? The connecting element is innovation. Entrepreneurs take existing resources and find productive uses for them, often using resources in entirely new ways. This is exactly what the Living Village at SMU has done. One example is David Pennington, better known as “Aquaponic Dave,” from Poetry, Texas. Aquaponic Dave showed me how he has combined concrete with Styrofoam to produce a new building material. Reusable Styrofoam is highly plentiful in the U.S., and Dave has found a way to “use Styrofoam’s biggest weakness (it doesn’t deteriorate) and turn it into its greatest strength (it doesn’t deteriorate).” His Styrofoam-and-concrete mixture is fireproof, waterproof, an excellent insulator, and extremely low cost to produce. While I am not about to sell my house and move my family into an Aquaponic Dave home, his environmentally friendly prototype homes exemplify the entrepreneurial genius that has driven the American free-market economy. The energy markets are a great example of this on a national scale. Over the past 50 years, more and more of our oil supply has come from imports. Oil and gas producers have known for years that vast reserves of natural gas exist domestically, but they are just “stuck” in shale rocks. Creative ingenuity and entrepreneurship led to the shale gas revolution. Figuring out how to extract the gas has led to a huge increase in the supply of natural gas. The result is falling prices for natural gas, which have translated into savings for Americans. This has also allowed our country to begin to think about moving away from expensive oil imports in favor of domestic gas production. The bonus is that natural gas is much more environmentally friendly. Entrepreneurs drive the economy. Their small businesses create jobs, create efficiency in the markets, and boost production. Regulations, taxes, and government inefficiency slow down entrepreneurs and kill growth. We have an abundance of resources (natural and reusable) and human ingenuity in this country to efficiently grow the economy and at the same time be responsible environmental stewards. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.