Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The world may be enough

I was over at Crooked Timber the other day, and a couple of clicks took me to CT contributor John Quiggin’s article in Aeon, “The World Is Enough.” Published back in January, it makes a remarkably optimistic assertion:

[C]an we share the advantages of the developed world with the entire population of the planet without running into limits on mineral and renewable resources? Not according to many environmentalists. They say we can’t even maintain them for the few people who presently enjoy them; that it’s technologically impossible to sustain current consumption levels on a global scale, let alone to spread prosperity more broadly.
 Having spent much of my professional life as an economist studying problems of this kind, I’m convinced that this is not true. The question is not: ‘Can we let everyone live like prosperous residents of the First World without destroying our natural environment?’ It is: ‘Will we?’ A balance is achievable, if we want it.

Yes, Quiggin argues, we can have it all. Half a century from now, we could produce enough energy and enough food to allow the world’s projected population of 10 billion people (up from 7 billion today) to enjoy something approaching a middle-class lifestyle, and do so sustainably. There won’t be much NASCAR, to be sure, but there will be enough food and resources to make true privation largely a thing of the past.

Is this remotely plausible? Quiggin bases his argument on twin conjectures about energy and food production; here, in a nutshell, are his assertions:

Energy: By increasing vehicle efficiency and reconfiguring settlement patterns, we can cut car fuel use by 90 percent. Meanwhile, we can convert the power grid to run largely on solar, relegating fossil fuels to a marginal role at most. It would be a huge endeavor, yes, but in the greater scheme of things, not as huge as you might think:

At current prices, energy use in developed countries accounts for around five per cent of national income (commonly, though misleadingly, measured by GDP). Even on conservative estimates, the cost of zero-carbon alternatives is no more than double that of carbon-based energy — that is, around 10 per cent of our current income. So, a complete switch might reduce income, net of energy costs, by around five per cent. Again, that’s roughly what we spend each year on cafés and restaurants. [my emphasis – ts]

Food: Agricultural productivity is staying ahead of population growth, and though productivity gains are slowing, they should continue to some extent. Quiggin argues that much of the global hunger problem can be solved via better distribution rather than additional production. He also notes that food production will have to reduce its environmental footprint; meat production, he suggests, will have to shift away from beef and pork and toward poultry.  

Quiggin concedes that implementing the kinds of changes he advocates would require a massive political and cultural overhaul, but he maintains that such an overhaul is not impossible:

The ultimate barriers to achieving a good life for all, free of the lash of financial necessity, are neither technological nor environmental. They are in our beliefs, values and social institutions. If we collectively prefer to stay on the treadmill, chasing bigger and better consumption goods, we can do that, at least until we hit the limits of sustainability. But if we choose to use the opportunities given to us by technology to eliminate poverty and drudgery, and to protect and restore the environment, that choice is equally open to us.

I can state with 100 percent certainty that the world will not steer a straight path to Quiggin’s sustainable Utopia. Nothing is ever that tidy, and there are powerful psychological and institutional forces militating against the outcome he envisions. Millions of people find it really satisfying to have a big house and lots of stuff; powerful industries don't meekly step aside to make way for their successors. Moreover, I think the technological barriers are significantly higher than Quiggin makes them out to be.

Yet his article makes me think that our way forward may not be quite the threading-the-needle near-impossibility I often envision it to be. Might we actually have a nontrivial opportunity to avoid ecological catastrophe? It’s encouraging to think so, to say the least.

1 comment:

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