Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving
The good news keeps rolling in. I hope to do a few more of these before
real life resumes. Enjoy!
By the 1990s, researchers realized that graphs of environmental impact didn’t
produce a simple upward-sloping line as countries got richer. The line more
often rose, flattened out and then reversed so that it sloped downward, forming
the shape of a dome or an inverted U — what’s called a Kuznets curve.
(See nytimes.com/tierneylab for an example.)
In dozens of studies, researchers identified Kuznets curves for a variety
of environmental problems. There are exceptions to the trend, especially in
countries with inept governments and poor systems of property rights, but
in general, richer is eventually greener. As incomes go up, people often focus
first on cleaning up their drinking water, and then later on air pollutants
like sulfur dioxide.
As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more
efficient and cleaner sources — from wood to coal and oil, and then to
natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit
of energy. This global decarbonization trend has been proceeding at a remarkably
steady rate since 1850, according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University
and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
The Good News
These Kuznets graphs confirm that the best way forward for the environment is
by way of technological and economic development. Technological progress gives
us the means of producing energy in increasingly clean ways and adds to our
ability to mitigate damage that’s already been done. Malthusian
and Luddite approaches are
wrong because they assume a zero-sum world (which this is not) and they ask
the developing world to forego many of the benefits of technology and economic
growth that we in the developed world take for granted, meanwhile demanding
that the developed world to take this whole standard of living thing down a
notch. Yet somehow a philosophy which is as indifferent to the human misery
it allows (and causes) as it is ineffective in protecting the environment —
the developing world will just revert to burning charcoal and peat once you
take all the other infrastructure away — dubs itself Sustainability.
True sustainability requires adopting an approach that improves the lives of
the people involved. There is only one truly sustainable direction for humanity…forward.
UPDATE: Check out these 10 Technologies on the Green Frontier.
Live to see it!