New Scientist has a feature this week blaming the unsustainable destruction of the environment on an obsession with economic growth and calling for a move to a growth-free world. The answers to the questions raised by the collection of articles (all essentially repeating each other) are straightforward and widely recognised:
- As the supply of something dwindles or the demand for it rises, the price of that thing will rise. If we run low on some particular natural resource or our demand for it at the current price proves greater than the supply, the price will rise. That will cause demand to fall and will spur innovation in searching for an alternative. Trains in Britain first ran on coal-fired steam engines. Eventually the price of coal rose too high and they switched over to diesel. The price of oil was going up too, so after that they moved to electric engines. The transitions aren’t perfectly smooth, I’ll grant you – there are discrete jumps that can make it a bumpy ride – but it does happen.
- Externalities exist, both good and bad. Actions that come with positive externalities ought to be subsidised. Actions that come with negative externalities ought to be penalised. We’re producing too much carbon dioxide? Make the polluters pay. Whether it should be through taxes or a trading system is a matter of debate, but bring it in. We’re over-fishing in the North Atlantic? Impose a tax directly on the fishermen for every fish they catch. When the cost of doing a bad thing rises, people do it less and innovate to find an alternative.
- Yes, extreme inequality is a Bad Thing ™. It’s true that for some time we’ve had worsening inequality because of low growth among the poor and high growth among the rich, but that doesn’t mean that growth is bad per se, only that the composition of growth is around the wrong way. It is far better to have low growth for the rich and high growth for the poor (so they catch up) than to have no growth at all and rely entirely on redistribution. Redistribution should happen, yes, but primarily for the purposes of enabling the poor to grow faster. Have the rich pay for the health care and education of the poor.
You don’t think this all this is possible? Of course it’s possible. Here is an article from Der Spiegel from April 2008 talking about solar power and the Sahara desert. Here is a map from that same article:
The caption reads: “The left square, labelled “world,” is around the size of Austria. If that area were covered in solar thermal power plants, it could produce enough electricity to meet world demand. The area in the center would be required to meet European demand. The one on the right corresponds to Germany’s energy demand.”
If the cost of coal- and gas-fired electricity production were high enough, this would happen so fast it would make an historian’s head spin.