July 2 2013

Environmental Optimism through Economic Growth

According to a recent story in the Washington Post, we’re killing the planet one butterfly at a time. What most of us would consider progress--building new homes and growing more crops—is killing the bugs that feed the frogs that feed the birds…well, you get the idea.

But Bjørn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, has some heartening arguments against gloom-and-doom environmentalism. He recalls that 40 years ago publications such as The Limits to Growth predicted that by this year we’d be done in by consumption, pollution, and over-population. Lomborg explains:

The genius of The Limits to Growth was to fuse these worries with fears of running out of stuff. …the authors…predicted that before 2013, the world would have run out of aluminum, copper, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, natural gas, oil, silver, tin, tungsten, and zinc.

Instead, despite recent increases, commodity prices have generally fallen to about a third of their level 150 years ago. … since 1946, supplies of copper, aluminum, iron, and zinc have outstripped consumption, owing to the discovery of additional reserves and new technologies to extract them economically.

Similarly, oil and natural gas were to run out in 1990 and 1992, respectively; today, reserves of both are larger than they were in 1970, although we consume dramatically more. Within the past six years, shale gas alone has doubled potential gas resources in the United States and halved the price.

As for economic collapse, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that global GDP per capita will increase 14-fold over this century and 24-fold in the developing world.

The Limits of Growth got it so wrong because its authors overlooked the greatest resource of all: our own resourcefulness. …

Obsession with doom-and-gloom scenarios distracts us from the real global threats. Poverty is one of the greatest killers of all, while easily curable diseases still claim 15 million lives every year – 25% of all deaths.

The solution is economic growth. …the four decades since The Limits of Growth have shown that we need more of it, not less. An expansion of trade, with estimated benefits exceeding $100 trillion annually toward the end of the century, would do thousands of times more good than timid feel-good policies that result from fear-mongering. But that requires abandoning an anti-growth mentality and using our enormous potential to create a brighter future.

President Obama should heed such sentiments and promote free markets instead of fear.

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