We need not fear economic growth

Economic growth is destroying our souls and our planet, writes columnist George Monboit. He believes ending capitalism is essential to human survival (A lesson from Hurricane Irma: capitalism can’t save the planet – it can only destroy it). He touches on several of issues in this piece and I am sympathetic with some aspects. Overall, this is mostly an expression of neo-Malthusian.

First, his analysis assumes an inexorable coupling of resource usage to economic growth. Yet what we see over the past two hundred years is a decoupling of the two. Imagine living in 1915, observing that the US had 300 million acres in agricultural production. You are told the population will triple within one hundred years. That means you will need an additional 600 million acres – an area equal to most of the land east of the Mississippi River. How many acres do we use today? About 300 million – and we produce a surplus. The global growth in agricultural land has nearly stalled and will likely soon shrink, thanks to the expansion of improved farming methods, new technologies, and reductions in waste of food in transport.

Furthermore, consider that through use of new synthetic materials and technologies, we can build ever larger and sturdier structures with a less material. Israel has been rolling out the first large scale water desalinization facilities holding promise for radical improvement in the abundance of potable water. We are in the early stages of nanotechnology where things can disassembled and reassembled at the molecular level. Virtually everything we use today could eventually be made from renewable resources. We are in the early stages of that. I am not saying this all happens seamlessly and without imbalances, but the abundance of the past 200+ years and the trajectory of the future weigh heavily against neo-Malthusian visions of inexorable coupling.

Second, ending growth is a convenient position to take for a wealthy Western intellectual. There are hundreds of millions of people in absolute poverty, with another billion or two only a little better off. What of these people? Are people in the West altruistically going to give up their wealth in order to adjust an imbalance? Not likely. Without economic growth, there is no hope for the world’s poor to attain some semblance of prosperity and well-being.

Third, I am not unsympathetic to some of his concerns about environmental issues. He is right to raise concerns like using the ocean as a trash bin. We must somehow address these externalities. I am not suggesting better coordination and cooperative efforts are not needed but none of this negates a parallel need for growth. (We should also note that annual global CO2 emissions have remained the same for the past three years and dropped by 15% over the past decade in the U.S.)

Fourth, yes, markets are imperfect. Yes, all sorts of abuses happen. But if not markets, where do we find this race of super-humans who will manage a centralized world economy, who are tuned into the endless changes in needs of each person and community, and will make decisions only for the common good, free of personal gain or pursuit of political power? They are mythical. Incorporation of markets (not sole reliance) is a more reliable long-term approach.

The answer is responsible growth with green technology and decoupling. Capitalism is part of the answer.