Big­ger Can Be Bet­ter

De­growth is un­rea­son­able and un­nec­es­sary. We can in­crease hu­man pop­u­la­tion and pros­per­ity while also tak­ing bet­ter care of our planet

Newsweek - - Content - BY ANDREW MCAFEE

The con­ven­tional wis­dom that eco­nomic progress must mean an in­creas­ingly un­liv­able planet is wrong.

years ago it might have been rea­son­able to fear that be­cause of our bot­tom­less de­sire for growth, we hu­mans were going to strip our planet bare and poi­son it with pol­lu­tion. But not any­more. The past half-cen­tury has shown us that we can in­crease hu­man pop­u­la­tion and pros­per­ity while also tak­ing bet­ter care of the planet we all live on. We still face real chal­lenges now and in the years ahead, of which global warm­ing is the most press­ing. The good news is that we now know the play­book for ef­fec­tively meet­ing these chal­lenges. The bad news is that we’re not do­ing a great job of fol­low­ing that play­book at present. We have to do bet­ter. We have to get smarter about meet­ing the prob­lems we face.

In 1970, people took to the streets on the first Earth Day be­cause of how we were treat­ing our world. It’s easy to see why they were so con­cerned. The 20th cen­tury, and in par­tic­u­lar the post-war decades, wit­nessed by far the fastest growth in hu­man history. Around the world, pop­u­la­tions grew more quickly than ever be­fore, and economies grew even faster as people strove for a higher stan­dard of liv­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, it seemed that along with this growth came three side ef­fects, all of which were both in­evitable and ter­ri­ble.

First, we were us­ing up the earth’s nat­u­ral re­sources at an ever-faster clip. In the U.S., for ex­am­ple, con­sump­tion of alu­minum, fer­til­izer and other important ma­te­ri­als was grow­ing even more quickly than the over­all econ­omy was in the years leading up to Earth Day. On a fi­nite planet, this was a scary trend. If it con­tin­ued, dis­as­ter seemed un­avoid­able. At MIT, a team led by bio­physi­cist Donella Mead­ows built a com­puter sim­u­la­tion of the global econ­omy and used it to run sce­nar­ios about how the fu­ture would un­fold. Their con­clu­sions, pub­lished in the 1972 best­seller The Lim­its to Growth, were stark: “We can thus say with some con­fi­dence that, un­der the as­sump­tion of no ma­jor change in the present sys­tem, pop­u­la­tion and in­dus­trial growth will cer­tainly stop within the [twenty-first] cen­tury, at the lat­est. The sys­tem… col­lapses be­cause of a re­source cri­sis.” The sec­ond bad side ef­fect of growth was pol­lu­tion. Air, wa­ter and land were all get­ting steadily dirt­ier in the years leading up to Earth Day. Lev­els of at­mo­spheric sul­fur diox­ide in the U.S. in­creased by more than 60 per­cent in the three decades af­ter 1940, and in 1969, the Cuya­hoga River caught fire in down­town Cleve­land. There seemed no end in sight to the pol­lu­tion. Life magazine re­ported in 1970 that “Sci­en­tists have solid ex­per­i­men­tal and the­o­ret­i­cal ev­i­dence to sup­port… the fol­low­ing pre­dic­tions: In a decade, ur­ban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to sur­vive air pol­lu­tion.… by 1985, air pol­lu­tion will have re­duced the amount of sun­light reach­ing earth by one half.”

The third neg­a­tive con­se­quence of con­stant growth was ex­tinc­tion of crea­tures that we share the planet with. The pas­sen­ger pi­geon showed that even huge num­bers pro­vided no guar­an­tee of sur­vival. It was an abun­dant bird early in the nine­teenth cen­tury, yet gone by 1914. An­i­mals from

the North Amer­i­can bi­son to the sea ot­ter to the snowy egret to the blue whale came close to ex­tinc­tion dur­ing the in­dus­trial era, and it seemed clear that many oth­ers would van­ish. As U.S. Senator Gay­lord Nel­son wrote in 1970, “Dr. S. Dil­lon Ri­p­ley, sec­re­tary of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, be­lieves that in 25 years, some­where be­tween 75 and 80 per­cent of all the species of liv­ing an­i­mals will be ex­tinct.”

If we wanted to save species, re­duce pol­lu­tion and avoid run­ning out of nat­u­ral re­sources, it seemed that we had to do one thing above all else: stop grow­ing. Per­haps the broad­est idea com­ing out of Earth Day and the nascent en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment was de­growth: deliberate shrink­age—rather than ex­pan­sion—of our pop­u­la­tions and economies over time. De­growth wouldn’t be easy and it might not be pop­u­lar with ev­ery­one, but it seemed like a ne­ces­sity. Philoso­pher An­dré Gorz spoke for many when he wrote in 1975, “The point is not to re­frain from con­sum­ing more and more, but to con­sume less and less—there is no other way.”

It’s important to be very clear on the fol­low­ing: people and so­ci­eties around the world have not em­braced de­growth since Earth Day. Global eco­nomic and pop­u­la­tion did de­cel­er­ate a bit af­ter 1970, but this is largely be­cause the 25 years af­ter the end of World War II were a time of ex­traor­di­nar­ily fast growth as coun­tries re­built them­selves. Ex­cept for that brief pe­riod, growth in the world’s economies and pop­u­la­tions has never in hu­man history been as fast as in the years since 1970. De­growth is nowhere to be found.

So what has hap­pened with the three nasty side ef­fects of growth: re­source de­ple­tion, pol­lu­tion and species loss? They must all have in­creased, just as pop­u­la­tions and economies have, right?

Not at all. In the years since Earth Day, some­thing weird and won­der­ful has hap­pened: we in­ge­nious hu­mans fig­ured out how to tread more lightly on our planet, even as we be­come more nu­mer­ous and pros­per­ous over time. This happy phe­nom­e­non is most ad­vanced in the rich­est coun­tries, but it’s spread­ing around the world. Al­most no­body an­tic­i­pated that it would hap­pen, and even to­day very few people are aware that the ap­par­ently iron­clad trade-off be­tween hu­man pros­per­ity and the state of na­ture has been eased. But it has. To see this,

let’s take an­other look at the three big prob­lems.

First, re­source de­ple­tion. The surest sign that some­thing is be­com­ing more scarce is that it’s be­com­ing less af­ford­able. But with­out ex­cep­tion, important re­sources like fu­els min­er­als, and foods have been get­ting more af­ford­able, not less, for the world’s av­er­age worker (in other words, not just for people in rich coun­tries). Re­searchers Mar­ian Tupy and Gale Poo­ley have cal­cu­lated this hy­po­thet­i­cal worker’s abil­ity to buy each of 50 re­sources over time—ev­ery­thing from crude oil to cof­fee to cot­ton. They find that the same mar­ket bas­ket of all 50 that could be bought with one hour of la­bor in 1980 could be bought with only a bit more than 20 min­utes of work in 2018. Not a sin­gle re­source be­came more “time ex­pen­sive” to the world’s av­er­age worker over this pe­riod.

How can this be? One of the most important rea­sons is that many if not most re­sources are not nearly as scarce as we used to think. 1972’s Lim­its to Growth pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing demon­stra­tion of this be­cause it in­cluded a list of the proven re­serves of sev­eral nat­u­ral re­sources, along with pre­dic­tions about how long these re­sources would last un­der var­i­ous sce­nar­ios. If ex­po­nen­tial eco­nomic growth con­tin­ued, one of the team’s main com­puter mod­els showed that the planet would run out of gold within twenty-nine years of 1972; sil­ver within forty-two years; cop­per and pe­tro­leum within fifty; and alu­minum within fifty-five.

These weren’t ac­cu­rate pre­dic­tions. We still have gold and sil­ver, and we still have large re­serves of them. In fact, the re­serves of both are ac­tu­ally much big­ger than in 1972, de­spite al­most half a cen­tury of ad­di­tional con­sump­tion. Known global re­serves of gold are al­most 400 per­cent larger to­day than in 1972, and sil­ver re­serves are more than 200 per­cent larger. And it’s prob­a­bly not too early to say that we’re not going to run out of cop­per, alu­minum and pe­tro­leum as quickly as es­ti­mated in Lim­its to Growth. Known re­serves of all are much larger than they were when the book was pub­lished.

One other thing to keep in mind about nat­u­ral re­sources is that in much of the rich world we’re

“Very few people are aware that the ap­par­ently iron­clad trade-off be­tween hu­man pros­per­ity and the state of na­ture has been eased. But it has.”

now us­ing less of them year af­ter year. And not just less per per­son, but less in to­tal. In the U.S., which ac­counts for about 25 per­cent of global GDP, an­nual con­sump­tion of re­sources as di­verse as cop­per, paper, wa­ter for agri­cul­ture, tim­ber, ni­tro­gen (a crit­i­cal fer­til­izer com­po­nent) and crop­land is now trend­ing down­ward. In ad­di­tion, to­tal Amer­i­can en­ergy use has been es­sen­tially flat since 2007, even as the econ­omy has grown by al­most 20 per­cent. De­vel­op­ing coun­tries, in­clud­ing fast-grow­ing ones such as In­dia and China, are not yet de­ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing. But I pre­dict that in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture they’ll start de­creas­ing their con­sump­tion of some re­sources, just as high-in­come coun­tries have.

As I ex­plain in my book More from Less, two pow­er­ful forces are com­bin­ing to drive this de­ma­te­ri­al­iza­tion of the econ­omy. The first is tech progress, es­pe­cially progress with all things dig­i­tal (think of how much bet­ter and lighter to­day’s LCD com­puter screens are than the cath­ode ray tube [CRT] mon­i­tors that pre­ceded them). The sec­ond is cap­i­tal­ism, or in­tense com­pe­ti­tion among profit-seek­ing com­pa­nies (think how much pres­sure CRT mak­ers faced as LCDS took over their mar­kets). This com­pe­ti­tion pro­vides strong in­cen­tives for com­pa­nies to save money on re­sources (af­ter all, a penny saved is a penny earned) and tech progress pro­vides plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to do exactly that. So in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines are si­mul­ta­ne­ously lighter, more pow­er­ful and more fuel-ef­fi­cient; smart­phones re­place en­tire shelves full of de­vices; and the econ­omy de­ma­te­ri­al­izes in count­less other ways.

It’s true that we live on a fi­nite planet. But when it comes to think­ing about re­source con­sump­tion and avail­abil­ity, this fact is es­sen­tially ir­rel­e­vant. Our ex­pe­ri­ence since Earth Day has demon­strated that our planet is eas­ily vast enough to sup­ply us with all the ma­te­ri­als we’ll need, for as long as we’ll need them. The real danger is not that our growth will de­plete the planet, but in­stead that it will be­foul it. So let’s look at pol­lu­tion next.

As ev­ery Eco­nom­ics 101 stu­dent learns, pol­lu­tion

is the clas­sic neg­a­tive ex­ter­nal­ity, or bad out­come from a trans­ac­tion that af­fects people who are not part of the trans­ac­tion. If a fac­tory pol­lutes a nearby river with its waste, for ex­am­ple, people liv­ing down­stream suf­fer even if they don’t buy any of the fac­tory’s prod­ucts. Com­pet­i­tive mar­kets do a lot of things well, but they don’t deal with ex­ter­nal­i­ties. In­stead, they of­ten cre­ate them. So gov­ern­ments need to step in by for­bid­ding the pol­lu­tion (as we’ve done with the chlo­roflu­o­ro­car­bons that were re­spon­si­ble for the hole in the ozone layer), plac­ing an up­per limit on it, or plac­ing a price on it.

The logic of the lat­ter ap­proach is sim­ple: if pol­lu­tion is ex­pen­sive, com­pa­nies will work to re­duce how much they spend on it, just like they work to re­duce their spend­ing on other ma­te­ri­als. The cap-and-trade pro­gram adopted in the U.S. and other rich coun­tries in re­cent decades to re­duce at­mo­spheric pol­lu­tion is an at­tempt to re­duce pol­lu­tion by mak­ing it costly.

Cap and trade has been a huge success. As Smith­so­nian magazine sum­ma­rized, it “con­tin­ues to let pol­luters fig­ure out the least ex­pen­sive way to re­duce their…emis­sions. As a re­sult, the law costs util­i­ties just $3 bil­lion an­nu­ally, not $25 bil­lion [as they orig­i­nally es­ti­mated].…it also gen­er­ates an es­ti­mated $122 bil­lion a year in ben­e­fits from avoided death and ill­ness, health­ier lakes and forests and im­proved vis­i­bil­ity on the Eastern Se­aboard.”

The bans, lim­its, pric­ing pro­grams and other pol­lu­tion-con­trol ef­forts es­tab­lished in high-in­come coun­tries since Earth Day have been ex­traor­di­nar­ily suc­cess­ful. They’ve caused pol­lu­tion lev­els to go down in the rich world, even as economies and pop­u­la­tions have con­tin­ued to grow. The U.S .econ­omy is more than two-and-a-half times as big as it was in 1970, yet at­mo­spheric sul­fur diox­ide lev­els have de­clined by more than 90 per­cent, and other kinds of air, wa­ter and land pol­lu­tion have also de­clined dra­mat­i­cally. A half-cen­tury ago, the con­ven­tional wis­dom was that pol­lu­tion was an un­pleas­ant but un­avoid­able con­se­quence of eco­nomic progress; as an Amer­i­can mayor said dur­ing de­bates in 1970 about strength­en­ing the Clean Air Act, “if you want this town to grow, it has got to stink.” But we now know that this is not true at all. To de­pol­lute, we don’t have to em­brace de­growth. We just have to put smart anti-pol­lu­tion mea­sures in place, then en­force them.

In re­cent decades, rich coun­tries have done both. And what about low-in­come coun­tries? Here the news is not as good. As re­searchers Han­nah Ritchie and Max Roser sum­ma­rize, “We see that the death rates [from air pol­lu­tion] tend to be high­est across Sub-sa­ha­ran Africa and South Asia…out­door air pol­lu­tion tends to in­crease as coun­tries in­dus­tri­al­ize and shift from low-to-mid­dle in­comes.”

This is not a sur­pris­ing find­ing. There’s a hy­poth­e­sis, based on the work of the econ­o­mist Si­mon Kuznets, that low-in­come coun­tries will pol­lute as their economies grew, but only up to a point. As people es­cape poverty and have more of their ba­sic needs met, they will start to de­mand a cleaner en­vi­ron­ment. The gov­ern­ment will re­spond to these de­mands, and over­all pol­lu­tion will start to go down, even as eco­nomic growth con­tin­ues. This pat­tern of ris­ing then fall­ing pol­lu­tion is known as the en­vi­ron­men­tal Kuznets curve (EKC), and in re­cent years we’ve seen it with air pol­lu­tion in China. In March of 2014, Premier Li Ke­qiang an­nounced to the Na­tional People’s Congress, “We will res­o­lutely de­clare war against pol­lu­tion as we de­clared war against poverty.” The gov­ern­ment man­dated that coal plants re­duce their emis­sions, shelved plans to build new ones in highly pol­luted re­gions and even re­moved coal fur­naces from many homes and small busi­nesses (with­out, in some cases, pro­vid­ing any­thing to re­place them).

These ef­forts worked. Econ­o­mist Michael Green­stone found re­duc­tions in fine-par­tic­u­late pollu

“Many if not most re­sources are not nearly as scarce as we used to think.”

tion of more than 30 per­cent through­out the coun­try by 2018. He es­ti­mated that these re­duc­tions, if they were main­tained, would add 2.4 years to the life of the av­er­age Chi­nese ci­ti­zen. As Green­stone wrote, “It took about a dozen years [af­ter pas­sage of the 1970 Clean Air Act] and the 1981–1982 re­ces­sion for the United States to achieve the 32 per­cent re­duc­tion China has achieved in just four years.”

The EKC tells us some­thing fun­da­men­tal: that eco­nomic growth is at first the cause of pol­lu­tion, then the cure for it. So to re­duce pol­lu­tion, we don’t have to pur­sue de­growth; in­stead, we should en­cour­age growth around the world. China’s ex­am­ple gives us con­fi­dence that this ap­proach works, and that grow­ing coun­tries will turn the cor­ner and start pol­lut­ing less in the years ahead. We all need this to hap­pen, be­cause some kinds of pol­lu­tion are global, not lo­cal. For ex­am­ple, the huge amount of plas­tic trash in the world’s oceans that doesn’t come from ships comes mainly from rivers that flow through low-in­come coun­tries in Asia and Africa. The surest way to stop this flow of garbage is to make people in these coun­tries pros­per­ous enough that they can af­ford to care about the en­vi­ron­ment. We also need to en­sure that rich coun­tries don’t start back­slid­ing on their en­vi­ron­men­tal suc­cesses. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s moves to roll back wet­lands pro­tec­tions, meth­ane pol­lu­tion stan­dards and other safe­guards are moves in the wrong di­rec­tion, and should be re­versed.

Of course, the green­house gases like car­bon diox­ide that cause global warm­ing are the pol­lu­tion most dam­ag­ing to the long-term health of our planet and our­selves. Re­duc­ing fu­ture green­house-gas emis­sions is a ma­jor chal­lenge, re­quir­ing po­lit­i­cal will and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion. But it won’t re­quire any other rad­i­cal de­par­tures from our cur­rent tra­jec­tory. In­stead, the same ap­proach that has worked for re­duc­ing other kinds of at­mo­spheric pol­lu­tion—namely, mak­ing it ex­pen­sive—would also be ef­fec­tive at low­er­ing green­house gas emis

“Eco­nomic growth is at first the cause of pol­lu­tion, then the cure for it. So to re­duce pol­lu­tion, we should en­cour­age growth around the world.”

sions. A car­bon div­i­dend is an in­ge­nious way to both make green­house gases ex­pen­sive and to help people af­ford the re­sult­ing price in­creases. This div­i­dend is a tax on car­bon with an important twist: in­stead of keep­ing the money col­lected from com­pa­nies, the gov­ern­ment sends it right back out to the people as a “div­i­dend” to each house­hold. Wil­liam Nord­haus was one of the win­ners of the 2018 No­bel Prize in eco­nom­ics in large part for his work on the car­bon div­i­dend. Clearly, it’s an idea whose time has come.

Species loss is one of the most heart­break­ing pre­dicted con­se­quences of global warm­ing. Our green­house gas emis­sions could make some habi­tats un­in­hab­it­able, adding more an­i­mals to the sad pa­rade of those al­ready elim­i­nated by our ac­tions. But the threat of ex­tinc­tions doesn’t im­ply a need for de­growth. In­stead, it makes more urgent the op­po­site: a world of na­tions and people pros­per­ous enough to be good stew­ards of our planet and the life on it. Over the past 50 years we’ve seen re­mark­able in­creases in this kind of stew­ard­ship. In 1982, for ex­am­ple, most na­tions agreed to a com­plete mora­to­rium on the hunt­ing of whales, and pop­u­la­tions are re­bound­ing. In ad­di­tion to pro­tect­ing species, we’re also pro­tect­ing ter­ri­tory. In 1970, less than 2.4 per­cent of the earth’s land area was des­ig­nated as park­land or other­wise con­served, and only 0.04 per­cent of the world’s wa­ters. By 2018 these fig­ures had in­creased to 13.4 per­cent and 7.3 per­cent, re­spec­tively. In China, which has long been the world’s largest mar­ket for en­dan­gered an­i­mal prod­ucts, an­other important EKC has taken shape. As the coun­try got wealth­ier, it even­tu­ally ap­plied less pres­sure, not more, to some important an­i­mals. Strict bans are in place on buy­ing, sell­ing and possess­ing rhino and tiger prod­ucts, and trade in ivory has been pro­hib­ited since 2017.

Are ef­forts like these help­ing in the fight against ex­tinc­tions? They are. Doc­u­mented ex­tinc­tions ap­pear to have slowed down in re­cent decades; for ex­am­ple, no ma­rine crea­tures have been recorded as ex­tinct in the past fifty years. It is far too early to de­clare vic­tory over the forces of an­ni­hi­la­tion, but not too early to say that we know what works. Less pol­lu­tion and more pro­tec­tion and pros­per­ity are core el­e­ments of a win­ning strat­egy for pro­tect­ing life on Earth.

De­growth is not. The past half-cen­tury has ex­posed it as an un­rea­son­able idea (given hu­man na­ture), and an un­nec­es­sary one. This is not the same as say­ing that en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism is un­nec­es­sary. We should all be deeply grate­ful to the mod­ern en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment born around Earth Day. On that day and count­less oth­ers, con­cerned people took to the streets; put pres­sure on busi­nesses, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and elected of­fi­cials; and other­wise ad­vo­cated that we take bet­ter care of the planet we all live on. It worked.

But grat­i­tude to­ward en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism does not mean con­tin­u­ing to sup­port all of its orig­i­nal ideas. We now know that the core idea of de­growth—that there is no other way to con­serve the earth for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions—is sim­ply wrong. With a few smart moves, in­clud­ing lim­it­ing pol­lu­tion and pro­tect­ing vul­ner­a­ble species, we can have both greater hu­man pros­per­ity and a healthy, end­lessly abun­dant planet. So let’s get to work on build­ing one.

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