The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Economic Recession
Did this title get your attention? I hope so. I intended for it to be provocatively absurd for reasons that will become apparent by the end of the post. I also intended for it to call attention to a fundamental assumption that seems to undergird the thinking of even some of the most intelligent individuals with regard to economic growth and climate change mitigation. Namely, that growth in overall consumption can and in fact must continue, and that we merely have to transition away from fossil fuel use in order to halt and begin to remediate the effects of carbon dioxide on the global climate.
Alright, I’ve already said a mouthful. Allow me to then take a step back and unpack what I just stated by sketching out some basic parameters:
- Our world population is projected to grow at about three quarters of a percent per year between now and the year 2050, at which time the earth is expected to be home to some 9.8 billion people. United Nations
- The U.S. population is projected to grow slightly faster than the global rate to about 438 million by the year 2050. Most of that growth is expected to come from new immigrants and their offspring. Pew Research Center
- Globally aggregated GDP growth in recent decades has been around 3% per year.
- For all practical purposes we can consider “healthy” U.S. GDP growth to be in that same 2–3% per year range. This is the rate of growth that is generally considered optimal in order to balance inflation and employment.
Anyone old enough to be reading this likely has vivid recollections of what it felt like during the so-called Great Recession of 2008. There was grave uncertainty then as to whether the nation and the world would slip into another depression which, given the realities of our nuclear armed, militia-riddled, drug cartel-influenced, post-9/11 world, likely prompted visions of a very dystopian future. Indeed, the requirement of stable GDP growth is taken to be almost as indispensable for us modern humans as are the requirements of air, water, food, and shelter. Without it, economic chaos and social unrest are feared to almost certainly follow.
But something has to fuel this growing world economy on which we’ve come to rely. Whether it’s fossil fuels, alternative energy, or nuclear power, we need something. And we need more than just a replacement of the amount of energy used today; we need an ever-increasing supply of it! Now, some economists will tell you that economic growth is not inextricably tied to growth in energy use at all. They will argue that the right combination of efficiency gains, innovation, and specialization can produce an ever-growing economy without necessarily requiring an ever-increasing supply of energy. Having said that, however, I must also say that I can’t help but think of such pronouncements as belonging to the realm of hubris, belief, and wishful thinking. It doesn’t take much digging to find more sober and scientifically based assessments of this proposition. See, for instance, Energetic Limits to Economic Growth (Bioscience, Volume 61, issue 1), Can Economic Growth Last? (a nice blog post by U of C, San Diego physicist, Tom Murphy), or Economists Are Blind to the Limits of Growth (an op-ed piece by Bloomberg View columnist and physicist, Mark Buchanan).
We humans have gotten ourselves, and the entire planet, into quite a pickle, haven’t we? We’ve got exponential population growth. We’ve got a world economic system perched precariously in unstable equilibrium — propped up on a foundation of steady growth in consumption above and beyond that which is commensurate with our increasing population. We’ve got built-in expectations that everyone’s standard of living will continue to rise. We’ve got a thirst for energy that just can’t be quenched. AND, on top of all this, we’ve somehow got to find a way to start reducing our total carbon dioxide emissions.
So it is that some of the top climate scientists of our time — Dr. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Dr. Kerry Emanuel of MIT, Dr. James Hansen of Columbia University, and Dr. Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research — signed a letter advocating nuclear energy as an appropriately scalable solution to the prescient demand for huge amounts of energy. You can find a copy of the letter on the New York Times blog, Dot Earth, by Andrew Revkin. The letter is addressed “To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power.” I’ve pulled out some of the highlights:
“[W]e are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”
“Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer.”
“While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”
Okay, you’ve got the gist. Now let me break it down a little bit further, adding commentary as I do:
“[O]pposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.” What’s interesting is that there are a number of variables to the climate change equation which these scientists seem to be taking as constant, or nearly so. Population, consumption, and energy needs will continue to grow, it is assumed; the only choice we have available to us is what energy source(s) we will rely on. But why isn’t opposition to discussing the attainment of zero population growth considered a threat to humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change? Why isn’t opposition to decreasing global per capita consumption considered a threat to humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change? Why isn’t opposition to decreasing our global average per capita energy usage considered a threat to humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change?
“Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies.” Notice the implicit assumption here. The ability to provide energy for the needs of developing economies will not be offset by reductions in energy use by developed (overdeveloped?) countries; it will be in addition to the growing energy needs of even the developed countries.
“While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.” Notice the implicit assumptions regarding the nature of the “real” world and what is considered to be credible. In the “real” world we just keep reproducing like mice in a cage until we overrun the earth’s capacity. Arriving at zero population growth (ZPG) is not considered credible. In the “real” world we behave like addicts who need more and more “stuff” in order to be content. That we might actually be able to live in contentment is not considered credible. In the “real” world we could never imagine voluntarily scaling back our own consumption so that others with a lower standard of living might be able to live in improved circumstances. In other words, it is not credible that we would begin to look at our fellow human beings as family and behave accordingly. Can you picture sitting down for a Thanksgiving gathering wherein some of you feast on the lion’s share of the food and drink even as your brother or mother or cousin goes hungry? No, we don’t treat family that way.
I understand where Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen, and Wigley are coming from. Discussion of reining in population growth is often considered a “non-starter” — a conversation that by its very nature is seen as likely to impinge on our cherished freedom to choose the size of our family. Talk of limiting consumption, likewise, is considered anathema to our way of life. Furthermore, the possibility of a healthy economy that is stable and without GDP growth would seem to fly in the face of everything we believe in and value about our capitalist system: that it is good, that it is just, that it is our engine of progress, and that it is the means by which we solve our problems.
It might seem that Caldeira, et al. are merely pointing out a reality that should be obvious to those who are thinking clearly and rationally. Rather than allowing ourselves to be ruled by a knee-jerk, anti-nuclear response, why don’t we just roll up our sleeves and get down to the business of making nuclear power as safe as it can be? But isn’t this nuclear “solution” really just kicking the can down the road to such time as we’ve totally overrun the carrying capacity of this finite earth? Aren’t we once again relying on technology to solve one problem even as it leads to the creation of other problems that we don’t know how to solve? Aren’t we merely forestalling the great reckoning at which time we will have to cobble together an economy that is sustainable? It’s time we stop kicking the can down the road.
Image of tin can by the author
Originally published on Crossing Nebraska