A recent headline:

Air Pollution Drops 30 Percent in Northeast US as Coronavirus Slows Travel: NASA

Most of us are all for sane ways to curtail pollution, but at the same time the headline had an ominous ring. Economist Stephen Moore put his finger on why:

It would be natural to believe that nearly everyone on the planet is horrified by the death and economic destruction wrought from the COVID-19 pandemic. But some see the body bags and the shutdown of economic production as a weird kind of blessing in disguise.

These are the proponents of a radical and increasingly chic movement on the left called “degrowth.” This is the idea that economic growth and increased prosperity are the root CAUSE of massive ecological destruction and health pandemics.

The agenda is to shut down industrial production and industries like fossil fuels, automobiles and airline travel that contribute to global warming. COVID-19 and the economy lockdown are seen as a kind of test run for the theory.

For example, professor Natasha Chassagne of the University of Tasmania and a disciple of this movement gushes that “we can draw many lessons and opportunities from the current health crisis when tackling planetary warming.”

A former high-ranking climate adviser to the Obama administration, Jason Bordoff, writes in Foreign Policy magazine that “COVID-19 may deliver some short-term climate benefits by curbing energy use, or even longer-term benefits if economic stimulus is linked to climate goals,” but he adds almost regretfully that the “benefits” from the pandemic in terms of less carbon emissions are likely to be “fleeting and negligible.”

The degrowth movement would seek to make the “benefits” from the coronavirus shutdown permanent and massive. If you like living under the current shutdown, you’d probably not chafe too much under a Green New Deal regimen.

Some extremists might even consider our current restrictions not as a difficult but necessary temporary measures, but as a welcome and long overdue response to environmental concerns. Instead of faith in human creativity and ingenuity, this is the Luddite, shut it down approach.  

As Moore explains, the degrowth movement is looking to gain momentum through the current shutdown:

The official degrowth website explains that COVID-19 is “an example of why degrowth is needed; it shows the unsustainability and fragility of our current way of life. Additionally, the response to covid-19 has shown that degrowth is possible, because society [and the state] has demonstrated an ability to dramatically change the modus operandi in response to a major crisis.”

The philosophy that increased prosperity is the problem and not the solution to our societal problems is not new. In the 1970s, many on the left embraced the “limits to growth” ideology of too many people, too little food and energy, and imminent ecological disaster.

Those ideas were discredited over the ensuing 40 years as innovation and technology, plus a renewed appreciation of economic freedom, advanced rapid growth in living standards around the globe and massive surpluses of food and energy.

The degrowth movement is historically rooted, Moore explains, in the work of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), the original Mr. Scarcity. Malthus was a clergyman and economist who postulated that population growth inevitably would outstrip the planet’s ability to feed people. Scientific advances have proven Malthus wrong again and again. Moore writes:

It is wrong on so many levels one hardly knows where to start. First, economic freedom and growth go hand in hand and have inarguably positive benefits to the poorest citizens of the world and to health and the environment. Nations that have degrowth are much more polluted and have much higher death rates than the United States.

Environmental protection is the ultimate “superior good.” The richer a society becomes, the more they spend on clean air, clean water and nature preservation.

I want to add something else: the Malthusian ethos, as it is manifesting itself right this minute, is essentially elitist. The shutdown was necessary, but there are some who seem to want to prolong it beyond what is needed.

If you watch the President’s daily press briefings, you’ll notice that all the questions from the hostile press are backward-looking. Most seem to feel no urgency to put this behind us. But the chattering classes, to which they belong, aren’t suffering that much, at least for now. It’s not that way for everybody.

As Thomas W. Smith notes at Real Clear Politics, not everybody has this luxury:

Closing the world economy has subjected the world population to unprecedented stress. Until a few weeks ago, especially here in the United States, a huge number of those now unemployed — some 17 million and counting — never entertained the slightest idea that they would ever lack a job. Now, out of the blue, they have been forcibly idled , worried about paying the rent, paying the mortgage, paying tuition. To say their lives have been disrupted is an understatement. The stress for them is enormous. Night and day. It is unprecedented.

In only a few weeks, the wealth destruction has been massive. Overnight, 401(k)s and other retirement plans down dramatically. This will seriously impact how millions of people live the rest of their lives. This is on their minds night and day. The stress is unprecedented.

I don’t think the chattering classes, who set the tone for much of our discussion, relate to this stress. For the most part, they may be frightened by the toll of the coronavirus but they aren’t, at least at this point, missing paychecks.

Just for the record, the shutdown should not be ended prematurely or recklessly. But we’ve got to start thinking about tomorrow.