We have seen that there has been a sharp rise in prosperity as measured by health and longevity, and in terms of income. All this has come in an era when the world population has grown more than 600%. Economist Robert Fogel attributes this to technophysio evolution. Indur M. Goklany in his recent book The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, gives a wonderful chart that links Fogel’s technophysio evolution to the larger context of economic growth and prosperity. I have presented a significantly reconfigured and simplified version of the chart of the one you can find on page 91 of his book. Because the chart represents a continuous process we can begin almost anywhere. I begin with the impact of technology on food production because this is where Fogel begins his discussion about technophysio evolution.
A. New technologies (like plows, irrigation, fertilizer, crop rotation methods, or storage methods) emerge that generate higher crop yields.
B. Increased food supply means better diets and improved human capital. Raising livestock becomes more feasible. People are sufficiently nourished for productive work and strong enough to fight off illness. Infant mortality begins to decline and life expectancy increases.
C. People with better diets are more productive and generate more goods and services, increasing wealth.
D. Wealth makes possible the development of new technologies as well as making existing technologies more affordable and efficient.
E. Technology contributes directly to human capital by making medicine and medical technologies available, making life safer through safer production methods, and reducing side effects like pollution.
F. Emerging technologies create goods and services apart form agriculture, thus adding to economic growth.
G. Economic growth and wealth enables people to purchase goods and services that will improve their physical, mental, and spiritual lives, thus improving human capital.
H. Improved human capital (physical, mental, spiritual) produces more people able to apply themselves to generating new technologies and effectively using existing ones.
I. Technology facilitates trade through improvement of infrastructure and the development of devices like ships, ground transport, planes, pipelines, and fiber optic cables, to name but a few. Ability to transport large quantities of goods both improves the distribution of the food supply and brings larger numbers of people into market exchange networks.
J. Trade with other societies increases the quantity, quality, and variety of food supplies available.
K. Trade with other societies results in exchanges of knowledge and ideas that can be used to improve human health and general well-being.
L. The formation of markets allows for greater specialization in economic behavior, thereby improving efficiency of economic growth.
M. Greater economic production and excess food supplies create the opportunity for trade with other societies.
Tracing the emergence of this model of growth is beyond the scope of this series but I do think it is worth noting that many of the key ideas that lead to its emergence (like scientific rationalism, risk assessment, individual rights, and progress) had distinctive roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Enlightenment and Modernist scholars have successfully severed the Judeo-Christian roots from the equation of economic growth in the minds of most folks. “Modern progress” is cast as departure from Judeo-Christian roots rather than being seen as grounded in those roots and extending from them. It is my sense that McLaren equates the emergence of the above model as a divergence from Judeo-Christian roots. To the degree that elements of the model have directed humanity toward achieving total autonomy, they are. But the basic elements of the model could only have emerged in a Judeo-Christian world. I believe they can be redeemed. McLaren seems to believe everything must change.
Having now reviewed the astonishing changes of the last few centuries, and having presented a model that hopefully illustrates the dynamic forces that brought them to be, we need to turn to environmental issues raised in McLaren’s book and suggested by this prosperity model. I can imagine readers agreeing with most of what I’ve written to this point but asking if this growth is sustainable. Won’t we soon deplete nonrenewable resources and destroy the environment? McLaren writes in Everything Must Change:
Our story does not guide us to respect environmental limits, but instead inspires our pursuit of as much resource use and waste production (also known as economic growth) as possible, as far as possible. As a result, we burn through nonrenewable resources without concern for their eventual disappearance, draw down renewable resources faster than they can be replenished, and produce more waste products than our environment can absorb, manifesting a host of negative symptoms, some realized, others largely invisible to us as yet. Rapid and extravagant resource use (with corresponding waste production) is so profitable for some people that they can avoid or remain in denial about most of these negative symptoms for a very long time. In fact, their “success” makes it highly improbable that they will ever be willing to acknowledge the unsustainability of their way of life. This is the prosperity dysfunction. (68)
What is the impact of economic growth on resources and the environment?