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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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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