Pollution: An economic perspective with respect to Nigeria – Henry Onyidoh


So what do I mean by output? It means electric power produced-and smoke produced. It means cans and bottles produced. It means metals and polyethene bags produced – and unless something is done about it, water and air will continuously be polluted. But that is not the end, for there will not be a static labor force. As noted, the force for the next 50 years is already born and will grow year by year.

Obviously, these people need employment opportunities. So in addition to a 3% productivity growth, there will be an added growth of at least 1% a year in the number of workers. The result is that we are almost “condemned” to rise in our total output of 4% a year. The only escape, it seems, would be a national decision either to have unemployment or to try to be less efficient. Both are absurd on their face.

The decree of economic growth says, then, that we already know that the national output in 2020 will be, and almost must be, some 50% higher than it is now. Studies have shown, and it is right. That is the result of an annual rate of real growth of about 4%, compounded. It is terrifying. If an economy of over four trillion Naira in 2012 produces the pollution and clutter we are familiar with, what will an economy half again as large produce?

Is there no escape from this decree? The answer, essentially, is no. But there’s one possible way to mitigate the awesome results. We might reduce labour input (but, we hope, not productivity input), without creating mass unemployment.

Each working person has a workday, workweek, workyear and worklife. Any one of them could be reduced by law or otherwise. We could reduce legal workweek from the present 40 hours. We could add more holidays or lengthen leave periods to reduce the workyear. We are already shortening the worklife, without planning it that way: increased participation in higher education has meant later entry into the labor force for many, and retirement plans, including social-security as practiced in the developed climes, have brought about earlier retirement in the past for others, opening up new employment opportunities.

If, by chance or by law, the annual man-hours of employment are reduced in the years ahead, our output will grow a little less rapidly. This is the only way to cut our economic growth, short of deliberate unemployment or deliberate inefficiency. There is a cost. It is most easily seen in a union-bargained settlement providing for longer leave period with leave allowance but no cut in annual wages, or a legal reduction in the workweek from 40 to 35 hours, with compulsory overtime payments after that. In each case, more workers must be hired to produce the same output, and if the employer-because of market demand-goes on producing at the same level, wage costs for each unit of output are higher than they otherwise would have been. Prices will therefore be higher.

But we cannot guarantee less output. Only if employers produce less-because of the extra cost-would that happen. And in that larger sense, the cost of a reduction in our annual labour input is simply less production per capita because the labour force is idle more of the time.

But less production was the objective of the exercise-the antipollution exercise. If we start with the proposition that the growth of production is the underlying cause of pollution, which has merit as a starting point, the only way we can get less growth in production, if we want it, is to have more of our labour force idle more of the time. In that case, we will have more leisure without mass unemployment, as we usually think of the term. Our national output, and our standard of living, will rise less rapidly.

That last idea we may learn to take, if we can cope with the leisure. But under any unforeseeable circumstances, our output will still go on rising. With the most optimistic assumptions about a gradual reduction of the workday, workweek, workyear, and worklife, we shall undoubtedly have a much higher output in 2023 than we have in 2013. To a man concerned about the environment, it might seem a blessing if our economic growth in the next 10 years could be 2 percent a year instead of 4%; he cannot hope for zero-growth. But how smart a choice is that?

The decree of economic growth, then, tells us a simple truth: “we” cannot choose to reduce production simply because we have found it to be the cause of a fouled environment. And if we want to reduce the rate of growth of production, the place to look is in our man-hours of work. And there’s a saying that workers become unproductive after 2 o’clock.


Henry Onyidoh
Department of Biological Sciences,

Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria