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Is Degrowth the Only Way to Save the World?

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

DegrowthSignWarsawRonald BaileyUnless 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.

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  • Illocust||

    2700 calories a day? They are fucking nuts. I sit at a desk at work then go home to play video games. 1800 calories a day is the absolute maximum I should be consuming if I don't want to end up morbidly obese.

    Gotta love when studies are so obviously fixing wrong in there premises.

  • Illocust||

    Course, part of their ideal world probably involves me doing back breaking labor for simple necessities that we all take for granted, so their models may be correct in their suggested calorie count.

  • Rhywun||

    I can't believe people get paid to be this stupid. How is the poor stealing from the rich going to solve anything? The total amount of bad stuff on Gaia will still be the same. Unless they just assume the poor will squander it in a few years thus leaving everyone equally poor. Gosh, that sounds like a bright future.

  • SimonD||

    You may be right, or not. The only thing we absolutely KNOW will happen is that people like this professor will become fabulously wealthy by being the middleman in charge of the redistribution.

  • BambiB||

    With an average IQ in the 65-70 ranges, the most efficient way to achieve the educational goal in Africa is to eliminate the entire population.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    The Ghanians I've met who made it out have been quite intelligent, I wouldn't write off a while continent. Haiti, on the other hand...

  • Griffin3||

    It's like these folks get their jollies from being constantly, consistently wrong. I'm sure it goes back beyond Malthus to the first guy who saw an eclipse, and started whacking off heads to appease the sun gods.

    And because the clowns are so prevalent in academia, where they do everything except for education the student under their care, we get such brainless wonders as 55 MPH: It's time to bring it back.

  • Don't look at me.||

    This time around I will invest in radar detector manufacturers.

  • Rhywun||

    Is "treehugger.com" part of academia? Just seems like a bunch of "activists" to me.

  • juris imprudent||

    Activists learn to activize in actidemia.

  • ||

    It's like these folks get their jollies from being constantly, consistently wrong. I'm sure it goes back beyond Malthus to the first guy who saw an eclipse, and started whacking off heads to appease the sun gods.

    It's not gay if it's to prevent an eclipse... If whacking off dude's heads is consistently wrong, then I don't want to be right... Gay the eclipse away... obvious homosexual double entendre... etc.

  • Jerryskids||

    These are the same sorts of people that were warning us we'd all soon be living in the dark because we were depleting all the whale oil. And if you were to ask them, they'd assert we got lucky when kerosene showed up to replace whale oil. And we'll get lucky the same way when we develop a replacement for fossil fuels. They really can't comprehend the role of prices and incentives as a feedback mechanism to regulate overuse.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    A couple of times, I've made fun of proggies by pointing out that John D. Rockefeller almost single-handedly saved the whales with his cheap lighting fuel. Of course, they don't believe such a raw statement, which leads to an explanation, which they think is simply made up fake factoids. But it upsets them, and I'm sure they remember the bad taste it left in their brains.

  • juris imprudent||

    You underestimate their ability to dismiss that which causes cognitive dissonance. AKA the memory hole.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Yes, you have to pick the right proggies.

  • macsnafu||

    How dare JDR get wealthy by making fuel affordable to so many low income people! #end exploitation

  • Don't look at me.||

    Too lazy to do any real work.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The aim of the exercise is to concoct a "safe and just space" for humanity.

    Kill it. Kill it with fire.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    The aim of the exercise is also to concoct a much smaller humanity to fit into that safe space.

  • NoVaNick||

    We seem to be on our way there:
    https://goo.gl/M6ZjtN

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Yes, but nobody gets credit for concocting something if it happens as the uncoerced choice of millions of individuals! Won't someone think of the concoctors?!?

  • ||

    Won't someone think of the concoctors?!?

    The idea men, who through mere thought, bolster our spirits. The architects of a future surety. The artists of human confidence.

  • Rhywun||

    More like the aim of the exercise is to wrap up their commie BS in pseudo-scientific gloss.

    move "beyond the pursuit of GDP growth to embrace new measures of progress,"

    Herpity derpity doo

  • Zeb||

    You are welcome to embrace whatever measures of progress you want. Just don't expect me to join in.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    I measure progress with swimsuit models...

  • John C. Randolph||

    another day, another steaming pile of Malthusian bullshit.

    -jcr

  • NoVaNick||

    So, in other words. Gaia would be happier if we all became third world countries.
    This sounds a lot like religious fluff-"Give up all your possessions and adopt an ascetic life." I hope they are leading by example.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    When i think of places with pristine natural environments and happy populations, i certainly think of the third world.

  • NoVaNick||

    Pristine natural environments have very low or no population. Otherwise they wouldn't be pristine.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    Right. There's so little pollution in those places. They don't do stuff like slash & burn entire forests to plant crops, pollute rivers, use open latrines for sanitation, and burn whatever they can find that will light to heat food. All of that stuff only happens in wealthy countries.

    You have only to compare two nations that share the same island: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. While the latter isn't exactly first world, it is quite wealthy compared to its neighbor. And where do you think the huge environmental devastation exists, versus the one with healthy forests and mostly intact ecosystems?

  • Zeb||

    A clean environment is valued most in the richest countries. Make everyone poor and no one will give a fuck about the environment, they'll just do whatever they need to to survive and get ahead.

    Do they think that the world's poor are poor because they are uniquely virtuous or something? They are just going to get as much as they can just like everyone else.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    At least 95 percent of each country's citizens must have access to good sanitation, earn more than $1.90 per day,

    That's certainly something to strive for. I have some good ideas on how we can do it.

    and pass through secondary school.

    Okay, that's kind of a useless metric.


    Ninety percent of citizens must have friends and family they can depend on.

    How does one even define that?

    They set the threshold for percent of labor force employed at 94 percent.

    If they mean total labor force involvement that's pretty dang high of a threshold. And also probably implies requiring lots of industry that directly opposes some of your other requirements.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Alas, I fucked up my italics. I shall banish myself as penance.

  • NoVaNick||

    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.

    Sorry Ron-I will not give up my car and my right to drive it myself-unless I am blind or have Alzheimers or something like that, which I might by then.

  • Rhywun||

    No fleet of cars is going to replace actual mass transit, either. Or it already would have happened. The buildout required to get 2 million cars in and out of Manhattan every day wouldn't be cheap.

  • CE||

    The planet Earth is very, very lightly populated by human beings. There are only 7.6 billion people on a planet with a land area of 196.9 million square miles. If you gave everyone their own house on a roomy half-acre lot, the Earth would be 97 percent vacant.

  • juris imprudent||

    But, everyone they know lives in an urban environment.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Yeah, you gotta limit that to places not called the Gobi desert and with access to fiber optic internet

  • Ecoli||

    I have to say that, for me, the world would be a more pleasant place if the human population was reduced by about 75%.

  • Greg F||

    You are free to lead by example.

  • BYODB||

    I don't understand...


    So they're saying the nations with the least growth are the one's that need to 'do something'? Shouldn't these third world nations with sky-high birth rates be the one's who 'slow down' on the population growth?


    I mean, I don't want to be the one who says brown and black people are the one's that need to be killed off, but if you're original argument is that population growth needs to slow down, that is the logical place for it to happen.


    Good thing I'm not a Malthusian fuck. Otherwise I might need to explain how this makes any lick of sense whatsoever.


    Oh, wait, I see now. They're linking CO2 emissions to population because...of reasons. That makes perfect sense I suppose if you're a retard.



    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.


    Wow. Just...wow. If that's the level they want the rest of humanity to be at then we were correct all along about their intentions. They're starting with their conclusion and working backwards.

  • NoVaNick||

    So they're saying the nations with the least growth are the one's that need to 'do something'?

    Because they have most of the world's money

    Shouldn't these third world nations with sky-high birth rates be the one's who 'slow down' on the population growth?

    Then there wouldn't be enough cute fly-covered babies to show on National Geographic specials.

  • BYODB||

    It's totally illogical, as I suspect you would agree.

    If there are 'too many people' we would be morally obligated to bomb the fuck out of Africa with nukes to ensure those 'breeders' (as my liberal/progressive friends sometimes refer to this type of person) stop breeding.

    It's just so absolutely and abundantly clear that they started with the premise that nations that are actually the models for low-growth are the one's that must be destroyed in favor of those nations that are the literal models for high-growth. It's amusing because it's the exact opposite of what they claim.

    Does anyone believe this shit? I'm sure they do, but how can they believe this shit?

  • An Non||

    I've generally figured that they're just completely oblivious to the fact that they're letting their deep racist tendencies show.

  • Zeb||

    They also really like to ignore the fact that birth rates are already going down in a lot of poorer countries. Without any Top Men making them do it.

  • SimonD||

    It's quite simple. The first world countries have all the money, and the elitist professor types intend to skim about 2/3 of it off the top for themselves when they 'supervise' the necessarily redistribution.

    It's sort of like the government, and transfer payments.

  • Greg F||

    Supporters of renewable energy technologies say that their costs are already or will soon be lower than those of fossil fuels.


    Supporters are also to stupid to understand you can't compare cost between reliable/dispatchable with unreliable/intermittent sources. I am sure if their supply of oxygen were unreliable/intermittent they would discover fairly quickly that WHEN is pretty important.

  • BYODB||

    Well, the understanding is that everyone should be working out in the fields without electricity past subsistence levels of heating your food and water, and probably barely even for that. Of course, the 'leaders' would still have the internet and digital porn and cable TV because, well, only the top 1% really need to unwind after a long day of whipping peasants. They don't have a problem with a certain standard of living, they have a problem with that standard of living being available to more people.

    The American and developed world's standard of living needs to be massively reduced, even while that would necessarily mean an increase in birth rates in the developed world.

    The best possible reading of their intentions is that they want to reduce the standard of living in the 1st world while marginally increasing the standard of living in the 3rd world so that they get a preferred % of birth rates but such a goal is, obviously, impossible. It would be Mao's 'Great Leap Forward' all over again.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    "Of course, the 'leaders' would still have the internet and digital porn and cable TV because, well, only the top 1% really need to unwind after a long day of whipping peasants."

    Yeah, isn't that funny how it inevitably works that way? I was watching a documentary about the revolution in Russia 101 years ago. The very first thing the revolutionary leaders did was install themselves in the palaces of the former czar and his ministers and treat themselves to every luxury the aristocrats they just murdered had enjoyed. And everyone else? Why, they were all equal now -- in their peasant semi-starvation.

    Why is it that the equality of outcomes these people desire, assuming it was even possible, NEVER, NEVER EVER extends to the leadership and intelligentsia? I mean, I still would ridicule the philosophy if they all demonstrated an ascetic lifestyle, but at least I would not detract points for its utter hypocrisy.

  • BYODB||

    Because, eternally, 'next' time will be 'different' even while it never is.

    Socialism and Communism by definition require strong leaders since it is abjectly against human nature to behave the way they believe mankind should behave. Hence why they needed a 'new soviet man' and why they need to 'remake' humanity. Something that, notably, is not really possible.

    You can, however, kill all the people that resist. That's close to the same thing, so it's what they do.

  • Microaggressor||

    The Great Leap Forward got rid of a lot of icky polluting humans. I'm sure they see that as a feature, not a bug.

  • renewableguy||

    https://goo.gl/Me8ec6
    Renewable energy, batteries is highly dispatchable. Better so than natural gas .

    https://goo.gl/6kavam
    Most of our oxygen comes from the ocean. If we depress life in the ocean, then we make it rough for everyone.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    It's always a laugh when the mask slips off and a supposed environmentalist reveals himself as a communist.

    If he bothered to learn some economics, he'd know that it's not a finite pie, where one person's wealth (apart from officials -- they are an exception) must force poverty on many others.

    If he truly cared about the planet as much as he claims, he'd be promoting new clean technologies such as advanced nuclear power generation rather than admonishing all us Westerners to go live in huts and tubers we dig up because that will somehow magically help the poor overseas (never mind that most of them are poor -- in places like Haiti, Congo, etc. BECAUSE of their governments and not anything that North Americans or Europeans are doing).

    The guy is clueless, but it's worse that he seeks to insult the intelligence of others. Just say you believe in a worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat and be done with it. Own it, however stupid it is. Don't hide behind Gaia's skirts and pretend it about something different.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    "...live in huts and EAT tubers we dig up..."

    Damn lack of an edit button.

  • Slumbrew||

    I liked it better the first way - I'm picturing people living in giant, hollowed-out sweet potatoes

  • BYODB||


    Just say you believe in a worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat and be done with it. Own it, however stupid it is. Don't hide behind Gaia's skirts and pretend it about something different.

    ^ This. The thing is though that they know this won't sell to most people without the lies. People don't realize that they are the one's who will suffer, they always think it's someone else using 'more' than them that needs to suffer. Obviously, they're never clued in until the last possible minute that, no, they are just the useful idiots that were needed to inflict those policies.

  • renewableguy||

    If we don't change, then life gets rougher. Its just a matter of making the right changes so that we live together a little easier.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    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.

    No it wasn't. Please retract your article, Ron.

  • Ron Bailey||

    J: You really do need to read their article and supplementary materials more closely.

  • EirkKengaard||

    Economic growth does not equate to quality of life. Population growth does not equate to quality of life - except for the 1%
    Nothing has done more to diminish the quality of life for the United States middle class through higher housing (land) costs, competition for jobs, low wages, greater poverty, mortgage fraud, medicare fraud, crime, disease, cost of public schools, degradation of the military, cost of college, depletion of resources, burden on the taxpayer and overall congestion than the INCREASE of and change in the nature (more poor, more criminals, e pluribus multum) of the POPULATION since 1965, driven almost entirely by immigration (immigrants, h1b visa holders, visa overstays, refugees, etc) their families and descendants.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Back to the Cave NOW!"

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    If it's good enough for Bruce Wayne...

  • MargeBouvier||

    I'm surprised he didn't comment on the correlation between the "sustainable" countries and horrible governments & living conditions:

    "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."

    Coincidence?

  • GamerFromJump||

    Always remember, Greens want you dead. Yes, you. Also, everyone you care about.

    Once you fully grok this, everything they say becomes clear.

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