Hang On, Indeed

Lordy, Lordy. I was just getting my head wrapped around the nuclear question, but before I could write about it the whole deal about the role of small-scale ag came up. So, I’m just getting my head wrapped around that, but before I could write about it, THIS comes up—

Economist coverAn entire special section in The Economist, with endearing cover image and catchy title, about how humans need to grow the economy, in order to save the planet.

Arg. I’m not sure where to begin with this, because my gut feeling is that they’re wrong, or, at a minimum, that the argument needs to be much more nuanced than they present it. But, without days and days to dig into it, I’m not sure I can write with surety. (Not that I’m ever completely sure about anything, as the multiple-stage morphings of my last post  attest to.)

But, a few off-the-cuff thoughts—

First, the articles say that global warming might be one of the more serious threat that species face, along with habitat destruction. Unfortunately, economic growth is tied almost in lockstep with energy growth (see post “A Matter of Limits“). And, despite tremendous gains in renewable capacity in recent years, humans are still using ever more fossil fuel. To paraphrase Bryan Walsh from Time, humans are losing the race to decarbonize. So, if those two things are true, then we need to be very, very careful about issuing blank checks for more economic growth. Burning ever-increasing amounts of fossil fuel just isn’t an answer. (NOTE April 2016– in the years since I wrote this, we have begun to decouple fossil fuel use from economic growth. We aren’t out of the woods yet by any measure, but we’re doing better….)

The articles also give, fairly I think, a great deal of credit to the environmental movement for recent gains. Calls for habitat protection, sustainability, conservation, and the like have moved governments and NGOs alike to enact many changes that have been beneficial. In fact, the entire collection of articles is upbeat in tone, and they urge humanity onward to more economic growth.

But, GDP can be a pretty blunt measure, counting as it does McMansions and Hummers in the rich world right along with better roads and communications for poor African nations. All growth is not equal. There is no doubt that economic growth can help many of the world’s poorest lead dramatically better lives, and there’s no doubt that the very poor trash their environments (as Mr. X never tires of pointing out to me, concern for the environment is the luxury of wealthy nations). But, more urban sprawl and planet-trashing consumption in the rich world is NOT part of the answer, and I’m afraid that a quick read of this section of the magazine by most will do more harm than good, as many will take it as a blank check for more business-as-usual.

In the end, we need to keep and continue all those changes that environmental movements have achieved in rich and poor countries alike, but go easy on these prescriptions for unfettered growth. Rich nations have indeed done some good things with regard to the environment and biodiversity, but they have, and continue to, exact a huge environmental toll, much of it in faraway and poor places. The global warming impact of the wealthy world is also huge—the average American uses something like 40 times the energy that the average person from the world’s poorer nations uses. Even with lower overall population numbers, the consumption in rich nations is at the root of many of the world’s environmental problems.

We aren’t decoupled, and all actions have consequences. Continuing to mushroom the human footprint and impact, if we aren’t careful, is going to have the biggest consequence of all.