Economic Growth & Environmental Problems

by Shane Hall; Updated September 26, 2017

Technological advances since the Industrial Revolution have paved the way for rapid economic growth. Unfortunately, that progress often comes at the expense of environmental quality. Most scientists agree, for example, that human industrial activity contributes to global warming. Economists, meanwhile, have studied the relationship between economic growth and environmental problems for years, and agree that pollution and other problems are a byproduct of societies growing in prosperity.


The Ecology Global Network website cited the Industrial Revolution, which began in Europe in the 18th century and spread to the United States in the 19th century, as a major turning point in the relationship between humans and their environment. The rapid economic development of the Industrial Revolution charged the economies of the world and affected the environment at the same time. It was during this time that machinery played more of a role in manufacturing, requiring fossil fuels for operation. According to to the Ecology Global Network, the unprecedented levels of human activity resulting from the Industrial Revolution came at a huge cost to the environment.


Jerasakanon wrote that growth in economic production and consumption created environmental problems such as pollution, the overuse and waste of natural resources, and disincentives to conserve. These problems affected not only industrialized nations, but their colonies as well.


Prominent scientists see climate change as a direct consequence of human economic activity. Meanwhile, many economic theories see economic growth and environmental protection as opposed. Economist Tulin O. Johansson, in a working paper for the Tennessee Valley Authority, observed that some economists view pollution and other environmental problems as the inevitable result of economic growth and development. Increased manufacturing, for example, results in more air and water pollution. At the other extreme, Johansson wrote that some economists believe that prospering societies will address environmental problems.


To balance economic growth with environmental protection and natural resource conservation, some economists and environmentalists propose an approach to economic growth that emphasizes not only meeting current societal needs, but considering the effect of present growth on future generations. Many economists, policy makers and environmentalists call this approach sustainable development.


Promoting sustainable development could require some limits on economic growth and expansion out of consideration for environmental effects. Some economists see environmental regulations as placing undue burden and limits on prosperity, which they view as an impediment to economic freedom. In a review of research on economic growth and the environment, University of Wisconsin economists William Brock and Scott Taylor concluded that efforts to limit pollution and improve environmental quality slow economic growth rates.


In 2010, the Gallup polling organization reported that a majority of Americans favored economic growth over environmental protection when the two goals conflict. Gallup researchers suggested that weak conditions in the U.S. economy at the time explain, in part, the responses to the poll question.

About the Author

Shane Hall is a writer and research analyst with more than 20 years of experience. His work has appeared in "Brookings Papers on Education Policy," "Population and Development" and various Texas newspapers. Hall has a Doctor of Philosophy in political economy and is a former college instructor of economics and political science.

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