It’s the End of the End of the World as We Know It, and I Feel Fine


For today’s “everything you think you know is false” gem, we turn to Russ Roberts’s EconTalk podcast episode with MIT management professor Andrew McAfee, who offers the startling conclusion that our civilization has advanced to the point that we’re actually using less stuff — land, material, energy, and so on — as our economy grows (emphasis in original):

… instead of some happy, clappy, vague thing about technology and Mother Earth, Jesse [Ausubel] is, like you know, is a very, very rigorous guy. And he loves to count things. And what this essay was really about was him making the case that year by year in America we were using fewer molecules. Less material. Our economy was dematerializing, was the word that he kept using. And, it’s kind of a striking point. And I didn’t honestly believe it at first, because I walked around with this really unquestioned assumption that, as an economy grows–you know, America’s economy has been growing at this relatively steady exponential clip for a long time now–and as a population grows, you know, we have to use more stuff to build that ever-growing economy. You know; and I would have said–yeah, of course, we use more steel, more after, year after year, more cement, more paper, more timber, more energy. Yanno: Duh. And, what Jesse was saying was, ‘No, not any more.’ Something changed. And our consumption of the lot of the most important molecules or materials in an economy had plateaued and was now generally trending downward. And I’m like, ‘What?! That just doesn’t work with my understanding of growth. Or business. Or anything.’ And, so, I read the essay very, very carefully. And then I started to double-check his sources. And he did a great job of pointing to all of his sources. And I reached out to him, and he was lovely about replying. And I thought, ‘Oh, my heavens: He’s right. And, if anything, he’s being too circumspect about this phenomenon. This is at least as big a deal as he’s talking about.’ And, it deserves an explanation. It deserves a full explanation or accounting about how this pretty profound change happened in our economies and our societies, and I think most fundamentally in our relationship with the planet that we all live on.

There is a caveat, of course, and it’s one that those of a conservative bent will greatly appreciate (emphasis in original):

… you bring up this fundamental point which I also included in the book that, it’s not just that the percentage of people around the world living in dire poverty has decreased. The absolute number of people living in dire poverty around the world has decreased. Like you, I spend a lot of time at this wonderful website called “Our World in Data.” And, they did this beautiful essay about extreme poverty and showed all the numbers. And there are fewer people–not smaller percentage–fewer people living in extreme poverty today probably than there were 200 years ago. This is absolutely extraordinary. But, you can look at the growth in population and the growth in affluence over, you know, the past 50 years, since the first Earth Day in 1970, and you could think, ‘Okay. That’s good news for humanity. Yay, us.’ But, we have to be beating up the planet more, year after year, in order to fuel that growth. We have to be taking more from it, polluting it more–just treating our earth more poorly. And I want to be super-clear: We have not–I don’t think that we have yet achieved absolute dematerialization in the developing world and low-income countries. I am very sure we have achieved it in the United States, which is 25% of the economy. From the data that I’ve seen, I’m pretty confident that we are at or near that point in a lot of the rest of the rich world. And, one of the conclusions from this, and one of the things I try to say in the book, is: ‘Gang: The implication is really, really clear. We have to help the rest of the world get rich. That will bring them past that hump of maximum exploitation of the planet. And they’re going to start to dematerialize, as well.’

Put in a different, more-active way, if you want to simultaneously reduce poverty and humankind’s footprint on the planet, the worst thing you can do is to layer on restrictions that slow down the economy.  That doesn’t mean the world ought to be anything goes; there are other reasons for restrictions on behavior.

But to the extent that our focus is on improved human well-being and a sustainable planet, the big-government… progressive… socialist approach will move the goal farther away, not bring it closer, even if the socialism doesn’t lead to misery.

Of course, one gets the sense that the for-your-own-good approach to public policy is less about making life better than about telling people what to do.  Would the socialists be just fine with conspicuous consumption and waste if it had no detrimental effect?  I don’t think so.  Rather, distaste for others’ lifestyles probably plays a central role in the desire to conclude that those lifestyles are objectively bad for people and the planet.