Rivers No Longer Catch Fire (in the U.S.)

Posted by Jeff 13/11/2015 0 Comment(s) The Bearing Market,

There was a time in the U.S. when our rivers would literally catch fire.  Most famously the great Cuyahoga River fire in 1969.  Interestingly enough, that famous fire was actually the last time a river in the U.S. would catch fire, though it was relatively common in earlier periods of the industrial revolution in this country. 


Since that time, streams and rivers in the U.S. have gotten much cleaner.  A lot of people credit the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act--passed a few years after the Cuyahoga fire--for this turnaround.  I am sure they have had an impact.  Action by local communities also played a role (as outlined in the linked story above) but I would also put forward another explanation: part of the reason our air and water is cleaner now than it was is because we have exported much of our pollution to China and other places around the globe.


The production of bearings requires steel and the production of steel requires heat and, often in this world of ours, that heat comes from coal.  Coal is a pretty dirty fuel and when it is burned to make steel it causes a lot of pollution.  This pollution is what economists call a "negative externality".  It is negative, because the smoke from the coal causes a lot of respiratory and heart problems and it is an externality because--even though the problems from the coal smoke cost real money to treat--that money is not paid by the factory burning the coal but is paid by society as a whole.


When companies in the U.S. move their production to China, they are also moving the source of the externalities associated with that production.  So, when we are importing a bearing we are also exporting the pollution associated with the production of that bearing.  And, since we are importing a ton of stuff from China, it stands to reason that we are also exporting the pollution associated with that production.  Which is equivalent to sweeping dust under the rug--the dirty stuff is still there, we just can't see it anymore.


And anyone who has ever visited China can attest that there is a lot of pollution there.  I remember my first trip to China.  I took a train from Outer Mongolia and, when the train passesd into Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia, the landscape resembled something out of Tolkien.  There were great heaps of coal lining the railroad tracks, the air was a blackish grey and the landscape was filled with dirt and a lot of scraggly trees that had been planted in long rows to try to remedy the environmental situation somewhat.  The river that ran next to my hostel in Beijing was an awful shade of dark black and slimy grey--I have never seen such water.


The causes of China's environmental woes go way beyond bearing production.  Their cities are choked with cars now, they burn a lot of coal to heat their apartment buildings and 1.3 billion people produce a lot of waste and sewage.  But, as America's industrial heartland has gradually shrunk away, our air and our water have undoubtedly gotten cleaner.  And as China's industry has gotten bigger and bigger, their skies have undoubtedly gotten filthier. 




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