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We make ourselves better off not by increasing the amount of stuff on planet earth, that is, of course, fixed, but by rearranging the stuff we have available so that it provides us with more of what we want, food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment. As we become cleverer about rearranging material, the more goods and services we can get from relatively less stuff. This process of improvement has been going on ever since the first members of our species walked the earth. We have moved from heavy earthenware pots to protect our food and drink to more effective and safer ultrathin plastics and lightweight aluminum cans. We have shifted from smoky dangerous wood-intensive campfires to clean efficient natural gas to cook our food. If our technologies had remained stuck in the past and if somehow the world’s population had nevertheless been able to grow to its current level, the impact of humanity on the natural environment would have been calamitous.
But by using better and better recipes, humanity has avoided the Malthusian trap while at the same time making the world safer, more comfortable and more pleasant for both larger numbers of people as well as for a larger proportion of the world’s people.
What modern Malthusians who worry about the depletion of resources miss is that people don’t want oil, they want to cool and heat their homes; they don’t want copper telephone lines, they want to communicate quickly and easily with friends, family, and businesses; they don’t want paper, they want a convenient and cheap way to store written information. If oil, copper, and paper become scarce, humanity will turn to other sources of energy, other methods of communication, and other ways to store information.
Brown University demographer Robert Kates notes that technological discoveries have "each transformed the meaning of resources and increased the carrying capacity of the Earth." History has clearly confirmed that the "no exhaustible resource is essential or irreplaceable," adds economist Gale Johnson. And economist Dwight Lee points out that, "The relevant resource base is defined by knowledge, rather than by physical deposits of existing resources." In other words, even the richest deposit of copper ore is just a bunch of rocks without the know-how to mine, mill, refine, shape, ship, and market it.
The surest way to get humanity to tread more lightly on the earth, clear the air, clean up the rivers and lakes and cherish forests and fisheries is to encourage rapid economic development among the world’s poorest people. What new growth theory tells us is that misery and vice are not the inevitable lot of humanity, nor is the ruin of the planet a foregone conclusion. Two centuries after Malthus and 30 years after the first Earth day, we now know that the exponential growth of knowledge, not our numbers, is the real key to understanding the promising future that lies ahead for humanity and for the earth.