While the modern environmental movement often portrays capitalist industrial societies as the world’s biggest pollution problem, Forbes notes something interesting about the top-25 cleanest cities in the world: Most of them are in wealthy industrialized democracies. Turns out, all that industrialization created wealth which, in turn, buys the things (mass transit, especially) and pays for the policies that create a cleaner environment. Forbes:

There is clean and then there is clean. In the world, as a rule of thumb, the North is clean and the South is dirty. Indeed only two of the top-25 cleanest cities in the world are below the Equator–Auckland, New Zealand, and Wellington, New Zealand.

The cleanest cities are largely located in countries noted for their democracy and their industrialization. The only Asian cities represented are in Japan. There are no top-25 clean cities in South or Central America, Africa and Australia. The U.S. has five of the top 25; Canada, a strong five, with the top spot its city of Calgary; Europe has 11 of the top 25; and Japan has three.

The 25 cleanest cities are located in 13 countries. It may not be accidental that these countries are among the highest in purchasing power parity according to the World Development Indicator database of the World Bank. Twelve are in the top 20, and only New Zealand lags in wealth, at No. 37 on the list of world’s wealthiest. So clean may also mean well-off.

Or, more likely, well-off may also mean clean.

Forbes writer Robert Malone explains the economics of urban cleanliness:

To be clean a city has to face and solve many problems that otherwise lead to unsanitary conditions and poor health as well as possible economic stagnation. Producing energy for industry, homes and transportation has to be planned and executed reasonably, and this means some form of regulation and control.

To be clean means organizing what is done with waste. Landfills are being closed or filled up. Recycling is the only long-range answer, but this takes civic discipline, a system and preferably a system that turns a profit. Green only works well when it results in greenbacks.

In addition a city has to look closely at its transportation infrastructure (roads, rail, air, subways) and their impact upon being clean or going dirty or staying dirty. The logistics infrastructure is also critical in terms of efficiency that can translate into money and fuel savings that in turn affect cleanliness (air quality, water quality and ground quality).

All of that takes money, of course, and wealthy capitalist industrialized democracies are more likely to afford to pay the cost of being clean and green.

Here’s a Forbes slideshow of the world’s 25 cleanest cities. Make that 26 – two cities tied for 25th. The ranking is based on data collected by Mercer Human Resources Consulting. And here’s the list:

1. Calgary, Canada
2. Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
3. Helsinki, Finland
4. Ottawa, Canada
5. Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
6. Oslo, Norway
6. Stockholm, Sweden
6 Zurich, Switzerland
9. Katsuyama, Japan
10. Bern, Switzerland
10. Montreal, Canada
10. Vancouver, Canada
10. Boston, Massachusetts, USA
10. Lexington, Kentucky
10. Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, USA
10. Nürnberg, Germany
10. Geneva, Switzerland
18. Auckland, New Zealand
18. Wellington, New Zealand
20. Dublin, Ireland
21. Amsterdam, the Netherlands
21. Toronto, Canada
23. Lyon, France
24. Copenhagen, Denmark
25. Kobe, Japan
25. Omuta, Japan

Update: A few weeks ago Jimmy Hogan, who writes both at Green Options and also his own blog, The Rational Environmentalist, and comments frequently and intelligently here at Ecotality, wrote an excellent post about how capitalism creates the wealth that makes it possible to clean up the environment, and I promised him I’d blog it here at Ecotality. And then I promptly forgot to do so. Hogan linked it in the comments below, but I’m going to make good on my promise too. Here’s the link.

Here’s an excerpt.

[Capitalism’s] cycle of indulgence, along with healthy continued common sense progress on the environmental front, will ultimately benefit the environment by providing the resources we need to attack the big environmental issues and mitigate the impact of a growing population on Mother Earth.

Read the whole thing.

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