Economic prosperity and environmental quality: It can be done!

posted at 7:01 pm on March 2, 2013 by Erika Johnsen

Self-fancied environmentalists have an unfortunate tendency to turn to big-government and top-down control as the best and most efficient arbiter of environmental quality, when in fact the effort to coerce people’s behavior into complying with their preconceived notions of ‘green’ living reliably comes with a whole host of unintended consequences and puts a damper on the very economic growth that is the real driver of the types of innovation and efficiency for which environmentalists claim they’re pushing. Prosperity is not the enemy of environmental quality, and as much as the greenies doth protest, it is more than possible to both improve global standards of living and better our environmental stewardship — at the same time.

Firstly, environmental concern is what you might consider a luxury good: People only take the time to consider and mitigate their impact on the environment when they have the disposable income, time, and resources to do so (that’s why third-world countries in which poverty reigns make for some of the worst ecological offenders). A new study finds that, since the start of the recession and as more and more people have been falling on hard times, “green fatigue” is setting in:

Public concern about environmental issues including climate change has slumped to a 20-year low since the financial crisis, a global study reveals.

Fewer people now consider issues such as CO2 emissions, air and water pollution, animal species loss, and water shortages to be “very serious” than at any time in the last two decades, according to the poll of 22,812 people in 22 countries including Britain and the US.

Despite years of studies showing the impact of global warming on the planet, only 49 per cent of people now consider climate change a very serious issue – far fewer than at the beginning of the worldwide financial crisis in 2009.

More importantly, however, economic growth means new technologies, innovation, efficiency, and progress. We are constantly figuring out how to accomplish more with fewer resources — that’s the entire basis of free enterprise, and it’s a boon for the environment, too.

Graph of primary energy consumption, as explained in the article text

Walter Russell Mead explains:

Energy intensity, or the amount of energy we use to create one dollar of GDP, has plummeted 58 percent between 1949 and 2011. Even more impressive is the 66 percent decrease in carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon emitted per real dollar of GDP. In other words, we’re wringing more production out of the energy we use, and doing so with less environmental impact.

Enough of all the gloom-and-doom, the predictions of imminent crises, and the hysterical insistence that we better start voluntarily making ourselves poorer or we’re looking at the end of days. Instead of trying to manipulate humanity with more rules and regulations, perhaps environmentalists could think of a way to be a little more productive with their recommendations. As Matt Ridley writes over at PERC:

Extrapolate global average GDP per capita into the future and it shows a rapid rise to the end of this century, when the average person on the planet would have an income at least twice as high as the typical American has today. If this were to happen, an economist would likely say that it’s a good thing, while an ecologist would likely say that it’s a bad thing because growth means using more resources. …

Pessimism should no longer be a prerequisite for being an environmentalist. It can be counterproductive because it is a counsel of despair. People do not respond well to being told disaster is unavoidable. Instead, the environmental movement should try optimism. …

All the economic models agree that the fastest economic growth will produce the smallest population, the most frugal use of resources, and the most land sparing.

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