Academic journal article Trames

The Statistician's Guide to Utopia: The Future of Growth

Academic journal article Trames

The Statistician's Guide to Utopia: The Future of Growth

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

If we put the causes of the ecological crisis on a formula, the outcome would probably be something in the line of this:

Environmental pressure = (World population) * (Consumption/person) * x

where 'x' represents our consumption's degree of environmental impact. Now, suppose that we can replace '(Consumption/person)' with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (1) per capita, and reshape 'x' as an Environmental Efficiency Factor (EEF). The equation would then appear like this:

Environmental pressure = (World population) * (GDP per capita) * EEF(2)

During the last century, population increased by a factor of four, and GDP per capita at least by a factor of five (cf. Tables 1 and 2). World GDP, in result, increased by a factor of at least twenty. Clearly, any descriptive explanation of the rise of the ecological crisis has to take these material facts into account. But what are the long-term prospects of the growth economy? If you ask a contemporary economist, chances are (s)he will maintain that the scope of any reliable economic prediction must be limited to the very near future. As any observant reader of economic news will know, the level of economic growth is at times hard to predict even a year in advance. And still, your question wouldn't be quite as silly as it might sound. After all, how can we possibly deal with the so-called environmental problems, if we know nothing at all about the future state of the economy?

Decades after the advent of a vocabulary of environmental problems, it is evident that the effect of environmentally friendly advances in technology and lifestyle are in many fields eaten up by growth in the volume of the economy. Moreover, particular problems are often solved through means by which new, often unanticipated kinds of problems arise. There is no such thing as a problem-free technology. Since 1973, the size of the world economy has more than doubled (cf. Table 3). For how long can we expect improvements in terms of what I call the Environmental Efficiency Factor to go on?

What most economists tend to neglect is that the growth economy, considered as a historical phenomenon, has a beginning, and, in the time scale of civilizations, is likely one day to come to an end. While eternal growth might in theory be a defendable position, it definitely calls for articulated justification. All too often it is simply taken for granted that our economic system is representative of a future without end.

If there is one assertion mainstream economists seem to find particularly ridiculous, it is this: That growth is no longer an option. And indeed, it would be ridiculous to make such an assertion (for one example, see Goldsmith 2001). In general, assertions of this kind seem to originate from two environmentalist fallacies. First, the mistaken view that we are running out of resources. In economic terms, however, what can be used as a resource is not given a priori, rather, it's a matter of technology. In economic history, there is a clear tendency that more and more 'parts' of the natural environment are made use of and thus transformed into resources. Second, the mistaken view that environmental problems will somehow make further growth too costly. There is not much solid evidence supporting this view. Sure, environmental costs change price formation, thus redirecting investments. But the more fundamental economic mechanisms, such as the drive for growth in the economy, are generally left intact. There are no signs that the era of the growth economy is about to end anytime soon. The end of the growth economy is not a matter of faith. It is a matter of choice. Accordingly, unless our worldviews and values change profoundly, the depletion of the natural environment is likely to deepen and broaden in scope for a long time still.

2. Matters of scale

There are at least four subject matters that any political theory aspiring to comprehensiveness should deal with, all of which are encompassed in the aforementioned equation:

--the legitimate level of human interference with the rest of nature

--the level of the human population

--the nature and extent of the economy (3)


These are all matters of scale. …

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