31 May 2012

Where Environmentalism Really Wants To Go

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“Darkling I listen; and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death.”
— John Keats

In Mother Jones, Clive Thompson describes with relish the coercive fantasies of a variety of leftist sophisters, economists, and calculators, who theorize on the ways and means to end the growth and expansion of the human population and economy, and who yearn for stagnation and retrenchment.

What would just a world be like? Thompson quotes Peter Alan Victor, a environmental sophister at the University of Toronto and a former senior economist at the World Bank named Herman Daly.

Americans would need to scale back our energy consumption to 1960s levels (assuming we stick to a predominantly fossil-fueled economy). Victor, for his part, points out that 1983 was the last year that “the world economy was just at the level of the capacity of the planet to support it.” Since then, of course, world population has exploded and global resources have dwindled even further.

Beyond these big-picture parameters, none of the experts has really crunched the numbers to envision what daily life might be like in a no-growth world—though they agree that it’s something people had better start thinking about.

For starters, they say, Western consumption rates would need to shrink disproportionately so that citizens of countries like India and El Salvador could enjoy a lifestyle upgrade. Why? The no-growthers argue that a world with fewer yawning inequities between the rich and poor would be more stable; but quite apart from that, their models require stabilizing world population, and raising the economic lot of the poor is a proven way to do that.

Given the shift in wealth needed to accomplish this, Americans would need to turn back the clock to well before 1983; in fact, we’d be pretty lucky even to find ourselves where we were in 1960—when the median family made $35,994 in today’s dollars (versus $61,932 in 2008).

Hardly the plenitude we’re accustomed to. Still, technological advances mean that your dollar buys a lot more than it did back then. For a couple of bucks, you can score a pocket calculator that does things it once took a million-dollar university machine to accomplish. “We’re better at making things now,” Victor says, so our living standards would be considerably higher than this figure suggests.

In a no-growth economy, as Daly points out, we would still consume new stuff—just at a much slower pace. People might need to develop a renewed appreciation for durable goods that require lots of labor to make but ultimately use fewer resources than their throwaway counterparts. We would also have to evolve away from “positional” consumption—feeling good because you possess something the Joneses don’t.

So maybe hipsters won’t be buying the latest iPhone every 12 months­. Or perhaps we’ll seek more fulfillment through activities with a lighter footprint—sports, music, hiking. The vexing reality is that the no-growth thinkers simply don’t know how things would shake out. We don’t have any realistic examples to learn from, after all. In the past, the only no-growth societies were agrarian or consisted of hunter-gatherers.

But these great minds are willing and eager to take us right back there. We need only surrender the necessary authority to credentialed experts in Environmental Witch-Doctory like themselves.

Hat tip to Troy Senik.

One Feedback on "Where Environmentalism Really Wants To Go"


All of this boils down, as usual, to: Let me impose my preferences on you so that we can create the Eden my enlightened mind imagines and knows is possible.


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