Is Economic Growth Environmentally Sustainable?


Economic growth is a question of much political interest these days. Slow growth is a major reason why Donald Trump was elected President in 2016.  The main justification for the Republican tax reform plan now moving through Congress is that it will speed up economic growth.
There are many people who say that humanity must learn to live with slower growth because our planet can no longer support the high rate of growth we have enjoyed since the Industrial Revolution.  But consider:

  • World Population is likely to peak at about 9.2 billion in approximately 2075 and then start to decline. (See the Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, page 206.)   In country after country around the world, economic progress has already led to lower mortality rates which in turn have led to lower birth rates. This demographic process is likely to continue.
  • Pollution is rapidly declining in the developed world (see above, page 279). Yes, greenhouse gas emissions (and global warming) are still increasing worldwide but the use of renewable energy is also increasing. Furthermore, the U.S. and China, working together, easily have enough clout to enact a carbon tax, which would provide an economic incentive for industry to get carbon emissions under control.

  • Natural Resources aren’t running out.  Take phosphorous for example, which is vital to agricultural fertility. When the richest mines are depleted, there are extensive lower grade deposits still available. The fracking revolution means that oil and natural gas will be available for hundreds of years to come. The earth is finite, of course, but it is also a vast storehouse of resources.

Conclusion. The economic growth that is needed to create more jobs and better paying jobs is compatible with maintaining a clean and stable environment on earth.

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9 thoughts on “Is Economic Growth Environmentally Sustainable?

  1. With slightly different net fertility rates, the 2016 United Nation’s World Prospects report projected a world population of 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. Our world’s total population passed 7.0 billion in 2011. The prospects are probably more closely related to the inability of most world-wide nation’s to support the COMMON GOOD for each of their communities, especially their safety and First Amendment Rights. Outside of the United States only 9% of the world’s citizens have these rights. And, finally the level of world-wide nutrition could produce suffering at a level far greater than our current levels of violence. For nutrition, our own country suffers largely from its opulence rather than any over-all shortage. The irony of this from a COMMON GOOD perspective is intolerable

    My own view of the Common Good is that it is ultimately enabled by the level of justice occurring within a nation’s governmental institutions, at all levels. The ultimate expression of the COMMON GOOD for each person’s family neighborhood is dependent on their community’s level of Social Capital. Oddly, our nation’s agriculture industry has the Cooperative Extension Service, now for 103 years, to enable the efficient and effective production of food. In fact, our nation’s agriculture industry is the most efficient and effective among the OECD nation’s, and our nation’s healthcare is the least efficient and effective among these nations.

    Augustine of Hippo said: “In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?” Without prejudice, we could rightly attribute the excessive cost of our nation’s healthcare to Parkinson’s Law, since 1960. Each community’s COMMON GOOD ultimately represents its umbrella for the level of Stable HEALTH within a community. Beginning with Basic Healthcare Needs we have no current, nationally planned, strategy to promote the locally sponsored Social Capital for *) improving the equitably available health care for the Basic Healthcare Needs of each community citizen, *) ameliorating the community’s unique adversities that produce Unstable HEALTH among its citizens, and *) annually updating the community’s Disaster Mitigation Plan, with an emphasis on the preparedness for predictably knowable disasters including their connection to regional and national preparedness (planning for certain knowable disasters sets the basis for responding to unpredictable disasters).
    With this view of COMMON GOOD, our own nation and ultimately all the world’s nation’s will need to foster a means to solve the ultimate details that underlie the HEALTH of each community’s citizens. Their ultimate responsibility to care for each other is in the balance. We must begin with a new set of inter-connected definitions of Caring Relationships, Social Capital, HEALTH and COMMON GOOD. Simultaneously, they will need their respective nation’s sovereignty to be governed by justice, first things first. We have a long way to go given the continuing Machiavellian tactics that govern world-wide affairs.

    • Ridley’s estimate of peak population of 9.2 billion around 2075 (from the UN) is based on rising worldwide prosperity which lowers mortality rates which in turn lowers birth rates. For example the world hit 6 billion in 1999, hit 7 billion in 2013, will hit 8 billion about 2028, and will hit 9 billion in about 2054. The rate of growth is slowing down because of increasing prosperity.
      I would describe this as a naturally occurring COMMON GOOD.

      • Less mortality and slower population growth does NOT equall lower growth/natural resource depletion.

  2. You have got to be kidding—this is as far from an accurate assessment of the subject as is Donald Trump from Abe Lincoln. Ridiculous!

      • They are numerous—the question is how are you so uninformed/ignorant of them. Start with Global Footprint/Earth Overshoot Day..see Lester Brown’s many books…see the 1992(!) dire “warning to humanity” by 1700 scientists and the recent follow-up by 15,000 scientists from 184 countries reaffirming the warning (Bioscience journal). Pollution alone now kills 9 million people. Moreover GDP is an outdated, misleading indicator.

  3. We need to focus on the basic issues here. Yes, unlimited population growth is a huge threat to the environment and human civilization. But that is precisely the point of Matt Ridley’s analysis. Human population is likely to stabilize (and then start to decrease) before 2100.
    Global warming is also a huge threat to human civilization. But Americans are becoming more and more aware of this problem and strong measures, such as a carbon tax, are likely to be imposed relatively soon. Since China suffers badly from pollution, it is likely to be amenable to working with the U.S. to limit carbon emissions. Once the world’s two largest economies are in sync on global warming, a worldwide solution can be found.
    There is no evidence that we are running out of the natural resources required for steady economic growth indefinitely into the future. It is economic growth which leads to human progress and increased prosperity for all.

    • Your sources are too “alarmist” to appeal to me. We do have a severe problem: global warming and a potentially severe problem: overpopulation. But they are being addressed as I have been explaining.

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