Human Progress and the Environment

 

Human civilization has made remarkable progress in the past two hundred years starting with the Industrial Revolution. This has been well documented in two current books, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley and Progress: ten reasons to look forward to the future by Johan Norberg.
But for human progress to continue indefinitely into the future depends on sufficient economic growth.  Faster growth means more progress.  The purpose of the Republican tax plan now working its way through Congress is to speed up economic growth in the U.S.
It is a legitimate question to ask whether there are environmental constraints on faster growth.  What are the world’s largest environmental problems and how serious are they?  In rough order of severity:

  • Global warming is a very serious problem, for which the evidence is overwhelming.  The use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar is growing but not fast enough to stop the world wide increase in carbon emissions. It will require the world’s two largest economies, the U.S. and China, working together to solve this huge problem but it can be done.

  • World population is likely to stabilize at about 9.2 billion (the Rational Optimist, page 206) by 2075 and then start to decline. This is because in country after country economic progress has led first to slower mortality rates and then to slower birth rates. When this demographic process eventually reaches Africa, world population will begin to decline.

  • Pollution is on the decline around the world (see above chart from Norberg). Air pollution is declining in the U.S. (see Ridley, page 279) and China is beginning to get serious about it.
  • Natural resources are simply not running out, see here and here.

Conclusion. Yes, the world has environmental problems (mainly global warming) but no, they need not stand in the way of economic growth indefinitely into the future.

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