We really can have a future that's more abundant even as we tread more lightly on the planet. We don't have to accept painful tradeoffs for the sake of survival.
Americans are obsessed with bigness.
In short, we idolize excess. We’re the richest society that’s ever existed, and we consume in a way that much of the world can only dream of. That’s where the problem lies:
According to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank, the Earth has 1.9 hectares of land per person for growing food and textiles for clothing, supplying wood and absorbing waste. The average American uses about 9.7 hectares.
These data alone suggest the Earth can support at most one-fifth of the present population, 1.5 billion people, at an American standard of living.Andrew D. Huang, “7.5 billion and counting: How many humans can the Earth support?“
Billions of people in developing countries aspire to the Western lifestyle. They, too, want beef for dinner and cars and air conditioning. But if the growing African, Indian and Chinese middle classes live like we do, drawing on the same fossil fuel sources we use, we’ll ravage the environment and boil the planet with carbon emissions.
The degrowth vision
It’s for this reason that some economists argue saving the planet requires consuming less. We have to consciously scale back the Western lifestyle to make it simpler, less materialistic, less energy-intensive. This idea goes by the name of degrowth.
In the degrowth vision, life would be humbler than we rich first-worlders are used to. We might have to get rid of our cars and rely on mass transit. We might all have to move into small apartments, abandoning suburban houses with big backyards. We might have to eat a mostly vegetarian diet, consisting of only the foods that can be grown within a few hundred miles of where we live (for those of us who don’t live in the tropics, no more coffee or bananas or strawberries in winter!). We might have to give up leisure travel entirely.
It’s a cramped, pessimistic vision of the future. Fortunately, it’s also completely wrong.
As I’ve written, the bad kind of growth comes from simple expansion – from adding more people to consume more resources. But this is less of a danger than you might guess, because population growth is already flattening. In many developed nations, it’s going into reverse. While this may pose its own challenges, the Malthusian fear of a horrifically overcrowded planet will never come to pass.
The good kind of growth comes from technological improvements that allow us to make more stuff quicker, more efficiently and with less effort. It’s true that we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet—but it’s also true that we’re nowhere close to the physical limits of what’s possible. Humanity is only on the first rung of the Kardashev ladder.
Industrial Revolution 2.0
Until now, the energy sources driving our civilization have been the dirtiest, the least abundant, and, ironically, the hardest ones to obtain. Oil and coal are scarce, polluting, and found only in remote regions under harsh conditions. Extracting them through drilling or mining is much more arduous and dangerous than collecting sunlight and wind, which are free for the taking on every rooftop and in every backyard. Vested interests will try to slow the transition, but basic physics can’t be denied. And as civilization transitions to green power, we’ll all benefit from an explosion of cheap, clean energy.
In this Industrial Revolution 2.0, every household can have its own 3D printer to manufacture its own consumer goods, rather than having them shipped from an overseas factory. Robots will take over more and more tasks that used to be the sole provenance of humans, from harvesting crops to performing surgery. High-tech vertical farms will allow food to be grown near where it’s eaten, reducing shipping costs and taking up less land. Smart grids, better batteries and ubiquitous rooftop solar will make every neighborhood self-sufficient in energy and turn blackouts into a thing of the past.
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions
ML Clark: What degrowth is, and why it matters
There’s every reason to believe that our lives can be more abundant and comfortable than ever before, even as we tread more lightly on the planet. The transition will be a true win-win, one of the incredibly rare cases where we can have our cake and eat it too.
Now, it’s true that there’s a perverse incentive lurking. As energy becomes cheaper, people may choose to use more of it, canceling out the benefit. This is a pitfall we should watch out for (although the related “risk compensation” theory – that well-intentioned safety regulations just motivate people to act more recklessly, resulting in no overall benefit – has been debunked).
Consumerism vs. growth
However, there’s a difference between opposing growth and opposing consumerism. Consumerism is the philosophy, pushed by billions of advertising dollars, that happiness comes from acquiring ever greater amounts of material possessions. This is a mirage which we should reject. It’s a lie that serves the interests of corporations who want us to be perpetually unsatisfied, always chasing the next new thing.
On the other hand, there are basic material needs that are essential for a good life. There are billions of people still seeking to rise out of poverty, who dream of better lives for themselves and for their children. We owe it to them to make this possible. There can be no justice in a world marked by gross inequality, where some are rich and comfortable while others struggle for the bare necessities. Humanity needs more economic growth if we’re to have enough for everyone, rather than just a handful of the rich and privileged.
And we don’t need to stop at that minimum level! Happiness doesn’t rest in consumer goods, but we can find it when we have more leisure time, more time for books and art and music and science, more freedom to choose the jobs that truly matter. With more energy and more labor-saving technology, we can make this a reality.
The future doesn’t have to be cramped, hemmed in, closed off. We don’t have to accept painful tradeoffs for the sake of survival. We really can make a better world for everyone. If we choose to, we can still create the wide-open, limitless horizon of our utopian dreams.