Some Greens Imagine a World Without Economic Growth. But There’s a Better Way.

 

shutterstock_231138520Economic growth — material abundance and the opportunity for human advancement it generates — is the beating, sustaining heart of modern civilization. Longer lives, more interesting lives, safer lives. Mass flourishing — with lots of cool stuff and more on the way.

What does scarcity look like? Fans of “The Walking Dead” sure know, just as they know the real monsters are humans fighting over what scraps remain of our world after the zombie apocalypse.

So thank you, market capitalism. Or perhaps “innovation capitalism” is the better term. Economist Deirdre McCloskey offers several preferable options including “technological and institutional betterment at a frenetic pace, tested by unforced exchange among all the parties involved,” and “fantastically successful liberalism, in the old European sense, applied to trade and politics, as it was applied also to science and music and painting and literature.”

But so long to all of that, say some environmentalists. Here is “Imagining a World Without Growth” by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times:

Staring at climactic upheaval approaching down the decades, environmental advocates, scientists and even some political leaders have put the proposal on the table: World consumption must stop growing. “This is a subtle and largely unacknowledged part of some folks’ environmental/climate plan,” said Michael Greenstone, who directs the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

Sometimes it is not so subtle. The Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich has been arguing for decades that we must slow both population and consumption growth. When I talked to him on the phone a few months ago, he quoted the economist Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

The proposal that growth must stop appears frequently along the leftward edge of the environmental movement, in publications like Dissent and the writing of the environmental advocate Bill McKibben. It also shows up in academic literature.

For instance, Peter Victor of York University in Canada published a study titled “Growth, degrowth and climate change: A scenario analysis,” in which he compared Canadian carbon emissions under three economic paths to the year 2035. Limiting growth to zero, he found, had a modest impact on carbon spewed into the air. Only the “de­growth” situation — in which Canadians’ income per person shrank to its level in 1976 and the average working hours of employed Canadians declined by 75 percent — managed to slash emissions in a big way.

And it is creeping into international diplomacy, showing up forcefully in India’s demand for “carbon space” from the rich world, which at its logical limit would demand that advanced nations deliver negative emissions — suck more carbon out of the atmosphere than they put in — so the world’s poor countries could burn their way to development as the rich countries have done for the last two centuries.

Giving up growth means abandoning civilization and foregoing an even more prosperous, fantastic future. Here is the awful math about climate change and growth: To keep temperatures from increasing by no more than 2 degrees Centigrade, scientists speculate, the global economy by 2050 would have to emit no more than six grams of carbon dioxide for every dollar of economic output. As Porter notes, “The United States economy emits 60 times that much.”

So energy austerity is no solution. De-growth, de-population, and a return to nature is no solution. A redistribution of prosperity from the rich world to the developing world — a Great Leveling — is no solution. A perpetual 1970s for everyone forever is no solution.

Instead, we need abundant clean energy for a populous, high-energy planet and beyond. For the second time this week, let me quote from the Economodernist Manifesto:

In the long run, next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion represent the most plausible pathways toward the joint goals of climate stabilization and radical decoupling of humans from nature. If the history of energy transitions is any guide, however, that transition will take time. During that transition, other energy technologies can provide important social and environmental benefits. Hydroelectric dams, for example, may be a cheap source of low-carbon power for poor nations even though their land and water footprint is relatively large. Fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage can likewise provide substantial environmental benefits over current fossil or biomass energies.

The ethical and pragmatic path toward a just and sustainable global energy economy requires that human beings transition as rapidly as possible to energy sources that are cheap, clean, dense, and abundant. Such a path will require sustained public support for the development and deployment of clean energy technologies, both within nations and between them, though international collaboration and competition, and within a broader framework for global modernization and development.

Some environmentalists are down on growth, innovation and productivity. So are some inequality alarmists on the left. Maybe the great political split in the future won’t be Republican or Democrat but those who want to invest and innovate a society of mass abundance and those who don’t.

Published in Economics, Environment
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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Paul Ehrlich? Didn’t he starve to death during the massive food shortages in the 70’s?

    • #1
  2. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    James Pethokoukis: In the long run, next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion represent the most plausible pathways…

    You’re supposed to be an economist, right?  Do the math on solar.  It doesn’t even come close to being a viable long-term source of energy.  By a couple orders of magnitude. Fusion is a pipe-dream, sadly, and we’re so cowardly about fission that it’s never going to be a major source of energy, at least not for this civilization.

    This is a fantasy.

    • #2
  3. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Tuck:

    James Pethokoukis: In the long run, next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion represent the most plausible pathways…

    You’re supposed to be an economist, right? Do the math on solar. It doesn’t even come close to being a viable long-term source of energy. By a couple orders of magnitude. Fusion is a pipe-dream, sadly, and we’re so cowardly about fission that it’s never going to be a major source of energy, at least not for this civilization.

    This is a fantasy.

    I’m not sure what next-gen solar is, so I’ll leave it alone, but the other elements are far from fantastic.

    Fusion would be wonderful if the research ever worked out, and I’m not going to dismiss something from being developed in the future.  It’s certainly a ways off.

    Fission is getting bigger, and if you want to tell people that their choice is de-development or fission plants, they will take the fission plant.  The modern generation of light-water reactors are incredibly safe and efficient, as are the newer CANDUs and gas-cooled reactors.  That’s not even including thorium reactors, which could be close to fusion in eliminating fuel concerns, or nuclear-fired gas turbines, which can be made very compact.

    While I love fracking, moving our grid to gas turbines is going to drive up the price of gas.  Nuclear is great at running the base load, leaving gas for peak demand.

    • #3
  4. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    OmegaPaladin: …Fusion would be wonderful if the research ever worked out, and I’m not going to dismiss something from being developed in the future. It’s certainly a ways off….

    It’s been “a ways off” for my entire life.  That’s what I mean by a pipe dream.

    I hope to be proven wrong, but betting against fusion has been a winning bet since the tokamak was first proposed in the 1950s…

    • #4
  5. TKC1101 Inactive
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    So, the choice is living as a serf in a seventh century subsistence society with a small enclave of elites swooping in keeping the remnants of technology for themselves,

    OR

    More abundant energy for less, more medical advances, opening up space, continued reduction of poverty, population self controlled by affluence and more freedom .

    Let me think about this. I will get back to you.

    • #5
  6. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    I don’t worry about growth.    We’re carrying a huge government on our backs that we count as output but it isn’t; millions of individuals don’t produce but we take income from one group to allow them to consume as if they had worked.  If they worked it would count as growth, but their consumption wouldn’t change that much, and we’d have less GNP if we got rid of the people engaged in robbing Peter to Pay Paul.  The people we take it from would save, or spend more time playing in ways that don’t count as GNP, but it doesn’t matter and we shouldn’t care.  Nominally my income in constant dollars hasn’t grown much in years but I get lots of digital goodies for low fixed monthly prices and have acquire human capital that isn’t counted that enables me to get low cost stuff, used stuff that doesn’t count either.   Just get the government off the backs of business and we’d all be better off, and greener and cleaner as well, not to mention wealthier even if net growth is a little less or more.  It doesn’t matter.   What matters is that people are free to flourish.   Whether one’s recreation and flourishing leaves a price/income trail is irrelevant.  From time to time technological break throughs give rise to spurts of new production and consumption.   This shows up as growth, but not always nor accurately.

    • #6
  7. hokiecon Inactive
    hokiecon
    @hokiecon

    Good post.

    • #7
  8. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Humanity first, the Earth second.

    Environmentalists believe the exact opposite.

    • #8
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