In Industralized Countries, Economic Growth Is Good for the Environment

by Patrick Brennan

At least in one respect, according to some numbers crunched by The Economist’s Daily Chart blog. As incomes rise in a country, its area covered by forests (a good proxy for biodiversity) shrinks, but only up to a certain point — about $18,500, The Economist finds, above which the relationship reverses, and forest cover tends to start growing again.

That turning point is approximately “middle income,” meaning countries that have basically industrialized but aren’t wealthy yet — average Latin American countries such as Uruguay and Mexico, poorer Eastern European countries such as Belarus and Bulgaria, Caribbean countries, etc. (Also: Russia.) As countries get wealthier, they can afford to devote more resources to clean sewage, water conservation, etc., and their demand for forest land especially changes in a significant way: Their economies shift away from subsistence agriculture to commercial agriculture, which requires less land (both since it can be transferred abroad, and because it’s just vastly more efficient). This shift can be observed not just across the economies we have today, but across time, too: It’s very hard to measure but U.S. forest coverage appears to have dropped dramatically from the 17th to the 20th centuries, but since we became an industrial country, it’s stabilized and recovered nicely in many regions (The Economist has American forest area growing 2.6 percent nationally last year).

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