Listening to environmental activists today, you get the idea that we have only two options.
- An ascetic no economic growth world where we “live within limits” and protect the environment.
- An economically robust world that collapses from exhausting resources and destroys the ecosystem.
Is there a third option? Is there an option that leads to robust economic development, to human flourishing, and to a healthy environment? I believe there is.
Return with me to America in 1910. Imagine that we have foreknowledge that the population will increase more than threefold over the next century. The present cropland in use is 330 million acres. The amount of cropland in use, as a ratio of population, has not changed dramatically over recent years. How much additional cropland will we need to accommodate future population growth? Approximately 700 million acres will be needed, an area approximately the land area of the US east of the Mississippi River. What actually happened?
Through improvements in farming methods, irrigation, fertilizer, storage and transportation, seeds, and other variables, enough food was produced to not only accommodate the growing domestic population but to generate a surplus for distribution to other nations. Corn yields per acre increasing by 60% between 1977 and 2007, is just one example of these changes. In fact, government subsidies are paid to some farmers not to grow crops so prices can be kept at stable levels. But in addition to food production, this explosion in productivity has empowered tremendous overall economic growth. Note the impact on gross domestic product.
One of the single biggest threats to biodiversity is destruction of habitat. The World Conservation Union estimates that habitat loss, of which agriculture is the biggest contributor, affects 85-90% of bird, mammal, and amphibian species. (The Improving State of the World, 117-118) Think of the millions of acres of land alone that were conserved, not destroyed, because of economic growth. Up until 1960, the world was in a situation similar to that of the United States in 1910. However, due to infusions of technology and aid, conversion of land to cropland around the world has slowed drastically. Despite a 160% increase in population since 1960 the amount of cropland has expanded by 14%. And there still are vast regions of the planet where existing technologies have yet to be applied. As the world population is likely to grow again by half before leveling off (and possibly declining) in a few decades, agricultural technology will indirectly be protecting billions of acres of habitat around the world.
The economic growth generated by new technologies has not been without trouble. Factories and vehicles turned out a tremendous about of pollution in Europe and in the United States. As scientists began to assess the harm caused by pollution, and as people had ever higher incomes meeting their basic needs, demand began to grow for a cleaner environment. The 1960s became a major turning point for cleaning up pollution. The chart below from the EPA shows the levels of pollution for the six major air pollutants and how they have dropped by 54% since 1970; this while population grew by half and GDP tripled.
The American experience exemplifies what economist Indur Goklany describes in his Environmental Transition theory. The graph below illustrates what Goklany calls the Environmental Transition curve.
Those who are familiar with the Kuznets Curve will recognize the similarity, except here "Time" has replaced per capita income (or GDP) on the X-Axis. Goklany describes the Environmental Transition hypothesis this way.
"...society is on a continual quest to improve its quality of life, which is determined by numerous social, economic, and environmental factors. The weight given to each determinant is constantly changing with society's precise circumstances and perceptions. In the early stages of economic and technological development, which go hand-in-hand, society places a higher priority on increasing� affluence than other determinants, even if that means tolerating some environmental deterioration, because increasing wealth provides the means for obtaining basic needs and amenities (e.g., food, shelter, water, and electricity) and reducing the most significant risks to public health and safety (e.g. malnutrition, infectious and parasitic diseases, and child mortality). Also, in those early stages, society may, in fact, be unaware of the risk imposed by a deterioration in the specific environmental impact, measured by the particular indicator in question. However, as society becomes wealthier; tackles these problems; and, possibly, gains more knowledge about the social, health, and economic consequences of the environmental impact in question, reducing� the environmental impact due to the specific indicator automatically rises higher on its priority list (even if the impact does not worsen). But because the first increments of economic activity further increase environmental impact, it becomes an even more important determinant of the overall quality of life. Accordingly, lowering the specific impact becomes even more urgent. (The Improving State of the World, 106-107)
The Kuznets Curve uses only affluence on the X axis. Goklany points to the need for sufficient time for the technology generated by rising affluence to emerge and be deployed. Consequently, technological innovation may lag to varying degrees depending on the particular set of issues a nation confronts. Furthermore, critical to the performance of the Environmental Transition Curve are democracy, property rights, free press, and rule of law. Individuals must have just social institutions by which they can make their growing concerns felt.
Environmentalist Seymour Garte drives the importance of this home in Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of our Planet. There is a tendency by some parties to resist moving toward less polluting technology even when it becomes apparent that failure to do so is harming others. Property rights are important because they give us a basis for challenging folks that harm our property and our persons through pollution. Political freedom and rule of law are important in providing just means for bringing polluters to accountability. Without this freedom, many of the improvements that have been made to the environment would not have been possible. I would also add that is by these same processes that alleged polluters can seek justice against overly aggressive environmentalists.
The process is often messy and rancorous. If we had perfect knowledge about all issues and impacts involved, we would no doubt discover that improper balances have been struck on any number of issues. But that is precisely the point. We don’t have perfect knowledge. That is why these less than perfect outcomes (by divine standards), sometimes achieved only through adversarial engagement, are probably the optimal we can hope for. It is hubris to believe that state run expertocracies or perfectly functioning markets can move us closer to divine wisdom. Russia and former Soviet Bloc nations had increasing per capita income but horrendous levels of pollution. Several Latin American countries have had rising per capita income but due to corruption and inadequate government, aid and trade has tended to impact only the top minority of society. There is little recourse to address abuses, including environmental issues. Political freedom, property rights, free press, and rule of law are the only soil from which sustainable cycles of prosperity can be generated.
Addressing environmental challenges can be costly. Businesses and industries may find it more costly to operate which means their goods will become more expensive to consumers. The more economically advanced a society is the less of a burden this is. Subsistence societies do not allow for human flourishing and they are not environmentally friendly. When people are trying to live day to day there is little concern about long-term environmental consequences. As economic growth takes root, environmental issues will still not be an immediate priority but as described in the Environmental Transition Curve people will increasingly have both the will and the resources to care for their environment.
Now any astute reader will note that have eschewed the issue of CO2 and global warming. What impact does the issue of global warming of emerging cycles of prosperity and how should we respond?