Planetary Collapse & Economic Growth

July 10, 2012 0 Comments

A couple days ago I brought up the media coverage of the most recent heat wave, and the lack of hysterics regarding AGW, which is a good thing. Even as more evidence for the theory builds, it is probably counterproductive to verbally panic, as seemed to be the case a few years back when apocalyptic AGW headlines seemed to make the news all the time. Too much “crying wolf” and more people will tune out than tune in.

In absence of overwhelming blaring AGW headlines I was actually heartened to read this recent article about “Imminent Irreversible Planetary Collapse”. Sounds bad, I know. I have discussed the irreversible & planetary collapse themes in past blog entries (including this one). Because I am substantially “techno-optimist”, I am optimistic that increasing technological progress will help us lessen negative impacts on nature in the near future, well before any “planetary collapse”. It also believe that future technology would be able to substantially reverse damage done to the environment, even on a global scale. For those who doubt this, just look at what we have done to the globe thus far – how we have transformed so much of it. With even more powerful technology at our disposal in the near future, how can one doubt our ability to transform the earth even more and on a shorter time scale (hopefully in a positive way).

So why would I be “heartened” to read about the ultimate demise of nature as we know it? Because the authors of the paper mentioned one thing which I have been harping on for a while now – population. One of the simplest and fastest ways to lessen our impact on nature is to stop having kids. I know it would not be easy, and I would never force anyone to not have progeny, but we should at least be talking about it more.

The authors of the paper mention that “we do not have the social structures” in place right now to deal with the climate problem. I disagree. The problem has just been attacked from the wrong angle. Instead of complex treaties, taxes, carbon caps, and wealth transfers, which have dubious chances of success, we could just promote sensible lifestyle choices. Instead of trying to take substantial amounts of private property rights away from everyone in the world (the basic element of climate treaties) for more than 15 years now, if there had been a sustained campaign to convince people to have less kids, or put off raising a family for a while, maybe we would be making better progress by now.

I think quite a few people could be convinced to have less kids or even no kids, but the real problem is something else that I have explained several times (including here: Housing Starts are Negative). It is that our economic system is based on growth. When you strip away all the fancy economic jargon and mathematical formulas, the “growth” of the economy is based on population growth. Even more troubling is that so many government programs including various nationalized medical care systems and the Social Security system here in the U.S. are absolutely dependent on population growth to stay solvent. There are powerful vested political interests that would “freak out” at the suggestion of a shrinking population.

As I have suggested before, I think we need to develop some better metrics of “growth”. Building even more roads, more suburbs, more strip malls, and more parking lots is not “good” growth. Building more things just for the sake of “economic growth” is bad policy. We have to come to grips with the fact that we cannot have ever increasing economic expansion based on population growth. Not with our current technology and not while we only have one planet to live on. Until we develop cleaner energy technologies and easier ways to conserve, we should stop paving over the planet and at least think ab0ut having less kids. It is the simplest route.

Have a swell Tuesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.

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