In a recent column on these pages, Trevor Hancock, a retired professor of social policy at the University of Victoria, wrote: “Continuing to push for economic growth, where that means further harm to the Earth’s natural systems, further depletion of vital natural resources and further extinction of the species that make up the web of life ... is mad.”
And he quotes Kenneth Boulding, a former president of the American Economic Association as saying: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
Fair disclosure: Hancock was responding to a column of mine in which I suggested the federal NDP and Greens are in danger of becoming fringe parties because their policies of excessive spending and taxation place them far outside the mainstream.
Warnings of the sort Hancock offers are nothing new. In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus predicted famine and disease as the world’s population increased.
So was Malthus right? Categorically, no.
About 800 million human beings inhabited the planet in 1798, with both poverty and famine widespread.
The world’s population today is 6.7 billion, yet just eight per cent live in poverty, down from more than 90 per cent in the late 1700s.
What Malthus failed to foresee was the astonishing impact the Industrial Revolution would have on wealth creation. Between 1800 and 1900 alone, Britain’s GDP rose by more than 600 per cent.
By 2000, the average per capita income in fully industrialized countries was 52 times higher than in nonindustrial nations.
Today, we have before us a new revolution — the era of information technology, robotization and machine learning. Who is to say these will not produce gains equal to or greater than the Industrial Revolution?
However, I have a different query to raise. If we assume for a moment that Hancock is right, and that continuing to push for economic growth is madness, how do we deal with this inconvenient fact: The United Nations predicts that by 2050, the world’s population will reach 9.77 billion, an increase of 46 per cent. How, if we take Hancock’s advice, are these people to be fed, housed and assured the quality of life we all aspire to?
Is he perhaps proposing forced birth control, which China experimented with in its “one-child” policy?
Would that even work? It certainly didn’t in China, which gave up on it, and that country is today the most centrally regulated nation on Earth. Try imposing it in the Middle East, India or Africa, where birth rates remain high, and governmental authorities are at best weak or fractured.
Or is Hancock suggesting we need a dietary regime that requires us to cut our food intake by half? Is that what’s on the table? Starvation for everyone?
Now I’m being hard on Trevor, a regular and thoughtful contributor to these pages. He might wish to argue that future technologies might be found that can increase economic growth without despoiling the planet. And so they might.
He could also argue that the Industrial Revolution, for all the affluence it brought, also gave us child labour, dark satanic mills and ghastly mine disasters. Although it’s worth recalling that the revolution also inspired far-reaching changes in labour laws that modernized and humanized the workplace.
We need a broader view here. The “mad” drive for economic growth has saved billions from starvation, extended life expectancy, worldwide, from about 30 in the Malthus era, to more than 70 today, tamed the terrible child-killing diseases, and brought modern medicine to the most remote areas of the planet.
As things stand, it is the only way forward. If this is madness, we’re going to need a lot more of it, not less.