Yesterday steeleweed linked to Chris Hedges’ latest feel-good hit of the impending environmental apocalypse, in which Hedges called on liberals to drop any icky pretense of hope (hisssssssssss) and instead fully embrace the inevitable secular eschatology of Gaia’s gruesome revenge with a bear hug and a shit-eating grin. But apparently Crooked Timber’s John Quiggin didn’t get the memo that contingency planning for a future that doesn’t necessarily end with humanity’s collective death rattle is, like, totally futile:
Economic development and technological progress provide the only real hope of lifting billions of people out of poverty and destitution, just as it has done for the minority in the developed world. Yet the living standards of the developed world have been built on cheap energy from carbon-based fossil fuels. If everyone in the world used energy as Americans or even Europeans do, it would be impossible to restrict climate change to even four degrees of warming.
For those of us who seek a better life for everybody, the question of how much our environment can withstand is crucial. If current First World living standards can’t safely be extended to the rest of the world, the future holds either environmental catastrophe or an indefinite continuation of the age-old struggle between rich and poor. Of course, it might hold both.
In my first contribution to Aeon (‘The golden age’, Sept 27, 2012), I looked at an idea put forward by John Maynard Keynes: that within a few decades, with the right use of technology, we could achieve a society where people worked because they chose to rather than out of material necessity, a society in which working hours averaged 15 per week with no decline in quality of life. I focused on the technological and social constraints that could prevent us from achieving all this.
However, there is no point in drawing up a utopian vision if it can be realised only in one part of the world, leaving the global poor permanently locked out. In my previous essay, I argued that, with another 50 years of technological progress and a modest effort to help the poorest onto the path of rapid growth, poverty could be eliminated.
But can 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. That goes against a lot of powerful convictions, of course. So, although arithmetic might not be part of everyone’s idea of utopia, we need to look at the numbers.
As they say, read the whole thing (before returning to your regularly scheduled confirmation bias, of course — btw will the last one to die a slow, agonizing-yet-poetically-just demise please turn out the light?)
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