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Who is Simon Kuznets? 20th-century economist behind the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC)

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Urban soil contamination is real, potentially scary - and completely understandable if you adhere to something called the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) theory.

It is named after economist Simon Kuznets, who was a pillar of economic theory in the 20th century, and at its core posits that in the process of acquiring wealth countries initially tend to get dirtier as environmental concerns play second fiddle to economic progress but that once nations get richer they tend to clean up.

Kuznets was the son of Jewish-Lithuanian parents born in Belarus in 1901 in the town of Pinsk. When he was 21 the family emigrated to the United States and the young Kuznets continued the education he started at the Kharkiv Institute of Commerce at Columbia University in New York where he completed his PhD in 1926.

An accomplished economist, Kuznets was awarded the 1971 Economics Nobel prize for his “empirically founded interpretation of economic growth which has led to new and deepened insight into the economic and social structure and process of development".

Simon Kuznets
Credit: Nobel Foundation archive

He also had stints as economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania (1930–1954), Johns Hopkins University (1954–1960) and Harvard University (1960–1971). In 1954, he was president of the American Economic Association.

He is probably best known for his study of the extended cycles of economic activity spanning 15-25 years through the analysis of a variety of factors including population levels, construction industry performance and national income data. These eventually became known as Kuznets Cycles by economists.

But it is the EKC that underpins the theory behind early environmental policy. It is a theory that makes perfect sense at first glance though it’s worth noting that much 21st-century economic theory takes issue with the basic premise. Indeed weighty papers bearing titles proclaiming the rise AND FALL of the EKC have been published in recent years. Fresher data suggests that perhaps a shift in attitudes has emerged among nations at the start of their wealth-building journeys, perhaps precluding these countries from having to deal with a tainted environment later.

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