Is Degrowth the Only Way to Save the World?

Welcome to the latest gussied up version of Malthusian eco-pessimism!


Ronald Bailey

Unless us folks in rich countries drastically reduce our material living standards and distribute most of what we have to people living in poor countries, the world will come to an end. Or at least that's the stark conclusion of a study published earlier this month in the journal Nature Sustainability. The researchers who wrote it, led by the Leeds University ecological economist Dan O'Neill, think the way to prevent the apocalypse is "degrowth."

Vice, pestilence, war, and "gigantic inevitable famine" were the planetary boundaries set on human population by the 18th-century economist Robert Thomas Malthus. The new study gussies up old-fashioned Malthusianism by devising a set of seven biophysical indicators of national environmental pressure, which they then link to 11 indicators of social outcomes. The aim of the exercise is to concoct a "safe and just space" for humanity.

Using data from 2011, the researchers calculate that the annual per capita boundaries for the world's 7 billion people consist of the emission of 1.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year and the annual consumption of 0.9 kilograms of phosphorus, 8.9 kilograms of nitrogen, 574 cubic meters of water, 2.6 tons of biomass (crops and wood), plus the ecological services of 1.7 hectares of land and 7.2 tons of material per person.

On the social side, meanwhile, the researchers say that life satisfaction in each country should exceed 6.5 on the 10-point Cantril scale, that healthy life expectancy should average at least 65 years, and that nutrition should be over 2,700 calories per day. At least 95 percent of each country's citizens must have access to good sanitation, earn more than $1.90 per day, and pass through secondary school. Ninety percent of citizens must have friends and family they can depend on. The threshold for democratic quality must exceed 0.8 on an index scale stretching from -1 to +1, while the threshold for equality is set at no higher than 70 on a Gini Index where 0 represents perfect equality and 100 implies perfect inequality. They set the threshold for percent of labor force employed at 94 percent.

So how does the U.S. do with regard to their biophysical boundaries and social outcomes measures? We Americans transgress all seven of the biophysical boundaries. Carbon dioxide emissions stand at 21.2 tons per person; we each use an average of 7 kilograms of phosphorus, 59.1 kilograms of nitrogen, 611 cubic meters of water, and 3.7 tons of biomass; we rely on the ecological services of 6.8 hectares of land and 27.2 tons of material. Although the researchers urge us to move "beyond the pursuit of GDP growth to embrace new measures of progress," it is worth noting that U.S. GDP is $59,609 per capita.

On the other hand, those transgressions have provided a pretty good life for Americans. For example, life satisfaction is 7.1; healthy life expectancy is 69.7 years; and democratic quality stands at 0.8 points. The only two social indicators we just missed on were employment (91 percent) and secondary education (94.7 percent).

On the other hand, our hemisphere is home to one paragon of sustainability—Haiti. Haitians breach none of the researchers' biophysical boundaries. But the Caribbean country performs abysmally on all 11 social indicators. Life satisfaction scores at 4.8; healthy life expectancy is 52.3 years; and Haitians average 2,105 calories per day. The country tallies -0.9 on the democratic quality index. Haiti's GDP is $719 per capita.

Other near-sustainability champions include Malawi, Nepal, Myanmar, and Nicaragua. All of them score dismally on the social indicators, and their GDPs per capita are $322, $799, $1,375, and $2,208, respectively.

The country that currently comes closest to the researchers' ideal of remaining within its biophysical boundaries while sufficient social indicators is…Vietnam. For the record, Vietnam's per capita GDP is $2,306.

"Countries with higher levels of life satisfaction and healthy life expectancy also tend to transgress more biophysical boundaries," the researchers note. A better way to put this relationship is that more wealth and technology tend to make people happier, healthier, and freer.

O'Neill and his unhappy team fail drastically to understand how human ingenuity unleashed in markets is already well on the way toward making their supposed planetary boundaries irrelevant. Take carbon dioxide emissions: Supporters of renewable energy technologies say that their costs are already or will soon be lower than those of fossil fuels. Boosters of advanced nuclear reactors similarly argue that they can supply all of the carbon-free energy the world will need. There's a good chance that fleets of battery-powered self-driving vehicles will largely replace private cars and mass transit later in this century.

Are we about to run out of phosphorous to fertilize our crops? Peak phosphorus is not at hand. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that at current rates of mining, the world's known reserves will last 266 years. The estimated total resources of phosphate rock would last over 1,140 years. "There are no imminent shortages of phosphate rock," notes the USGS. With respect to the deleterious effects that using phosphorus to fertilize crops might have outside of farm fields, researchers are working on ways to endow crops with traits that enable them to use less while maintaining yields.

O'Neill and his colleagues are also concerned that farmers are using too much nitrogen fertilizer, which runs off fields into the natural environment and contributes to deoxygenated dead zones in the oceans, among other ill effects. This is a problem, but one that plant breeders are already working to solve. For example, researchers at Arcadia Biosciences have used biotechnology to create nitrogen-efficient varieties of staples like rice and wheat that enable farmers to increase yields while significantly reducing fertilizer use. Meanwhile, other researchers are moving on projects to engineer the nitrogen fixation trait from legumes into cereal crops. In other words, the crops would make their own fertilizer from air.

Water? Most water is devoted to the irrigation of crops; the ongoing development of drought-resistant and saline-tolerant crops will help with that. Hectares per capita? Humanity has probably already reached peak farmland, and nearly 400 million hectares will be restored to nature by 2060—an area almost double the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River. In fact, it is entirely possible that most animal farming will be replaced by resource-sparing lab-grown steaks, chops, and milk. Such developments in food production undermine the researchers' worries about overconsumption of biomass.

And humanity's material footprint is likely to get smaller too as trends toward further dematerialization take hold. The price system is a superb mechanism for encouraging innovators to find ways to wring ever more value out less and less stuff. Rockefeller University researcher Jesse Ausubel has shown that this process of absolute dematerialization has already taken off for many commodities.

After cranking their way through their models of doom, O'Neill and his colleagues lugubriously conclude: "If all people are to lead a good life within planetary boundaries, then the level of resource use associated with meeting basic needs must be dramatically reduced." They are right, but they are entirely backward with regard to how to achieve those goals. Economic growth provides the wealth and technologies needed to lift people from poverty while simultaneously lightening humanity's footprint on the natural world. Rather than degrowth, the planet—and especially its poor people—need more and faster economic growth.