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True Environmentalists Should Prioritize Economic Prosperity

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

True Environmentalists Should Prioritize Economic Prosperity

Prosperity frees people to protect the environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns reduced global CO2 emissions by 7 percent last year. Some environmentalists, such as the University College London professor Mariana Mazzucato, have thus wondered about the feasibility of future “climate lockdowns … to tackle a climate emergency.” Yet even if we ignore the negative consequences of the lockdowns on broader health outcomes and human psychology, Mazzucato appears to fail to account for the well-known correlation between economic prosperity and environmental quality.

Lockdowns have contributed to around 100 million people, most of them living in the developing world, sliding back into extreme poverty. While they may have lowered the CO2 emissions in the short term, by increasing absolute poverty, the lockdowns may cause massive environmental destruction in the long term. Simply put, people can afford to care about the environment only when they have enough income to cover their basic needs. If their survival depends on killing an endangered animal or cutting down a rare tree, then so be it.

The Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) hypothesis posits that environmental damage increases in tandem with economic growth, but only until a certain level of income is reached. Once people are wealthy enough not to have to worry about day-to-day survival, environmental degradation stops, and ecosystems begin to recover. The environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel, for example, suggests that once a nation achieves a GDP per capita of $6,200 (in 2021 dollars), deforestation stops or afforestation occurs.

In fact, forest coverage is growing in China, Russia, India, and Vietnam – all emerging economies that reached the $6,200-mark. The curve is even clearer in wealthy regions like North America and Europe – both of which have more trees today than they did a century ago. The UK, for example, has more than doubled its forest area in the last 100 years. Conversely, deforestation continues in poor African and Latin American countries. Scientists have found that the EKC holds true in all manner of environmental domains, including water pollution, carbon dioxide emissions, nitrogen, sulphur, and biodiversity.

While it is too early to gauge the impact of the lockdowns on forest coverage, the lockdowns have already wreaked havoc on endangered species and protected habitats in the developing world. In Kenya, the killing of giraffes has skyrocketed. Given that a tonne of giraffe meat is worth about $1,000 (i.e., almost seven months of the average Kenyan salary), it is unsurprising that desperate locals have resorted to slaughtering the endangered animal. Kenya’s Mara Elephant Project also recorded that illegal logging in the region peaked in the months following the first lockdown. In Botswana, government workers had to evacuate dozens of critically endangered black rhinos from the Okavango Delta after six of the animals were found dead after the lockdowns were implemented. 

In Colombia, the poaching of endangered pumas and jaguars has also rapidly increased. In India, tiger numbers were steady, as incomes have increased, for the last two decades. But, since the lockdowns were imposed, various reports have highlighted an upsurge in tiger poaching and illegal hunting. Similarly, in India’s Western Bengal region, where over a million jobs have been lost due to the lockdowns, the local authorities have reported the first-ever instance of illegal ivory poaching in the region. The problem of illegal poaching is exacerbated by the fact that park rangers in some countries have been left without work and income. The animals, in other words, have lost their human protectors.

The World Economic Forum recently acknowledged that the significant increase in bushmeat harvesting and wildlife trafficking in Africa “is directly linked to COVID-19-related lockdowns.” Similarly, the UK-based wildlife charity called People’s Trust for Endangered Species has warned that “unintended consequences” of lockdowns could undo “decades of work” devoted to animal protection.

Fortunately for mother nature, as economies begin to recover from the government-mandated lockdowns, the number of people who rely on illegal activities will decrease, and biodiversity will slowly recover. However, the EKC and the wretched impact of lockdowns on poverty and biodiversity teaches us an important lesson – true environmentalists should seek to prioritize economic growth, not lower it. Poverty-reducing policies, such as strong property rights, freedom to trade, lower regulation, and few burdensome taxes, as shown annually in the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Report, remain some of the most reliable ways of raising economic prosperity for all.

In conclusion, poor people depend on mother nature to survive. Rich people, in contrast, can decouple themselves from the environment, protect wildlife for future generations, and return vast swathes of land to nature. Now, what environmentalist wouldn’t want that? 

Blog Post | Rights & Freedoms

Markets and Dematerialization

We do more with less not because of government regulation or administrative direction, but because of capitalism and technology.

Dematerialization may be the most important, yet unsung, example of environmental progress in the 21st century. It is commonplace to observe that the relentless drive to do more with less has led to more efficient resource use, so that a soda can today is made with a fraction of the metal required 50 years ago. But dematerialization is not merely a story about increased efficiency or per‐​capita reductions.

What is now being observed represents a fundamental decoupling of resource consumption from economic growth, such that as mature economies grow, they not only use fewer resources per unit of output, but they also consume fewer resources overall. In short, economic growth in the most developed nations increasingly coincides with a net reduction in resource consumption. The United States in particular is “post‐​peak in its exploitation of the earth,” according to Andrew McAfee in More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources — and What Happens Next.

McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT, explains, “We’re now generally using less of most resources year after year, even as our economy and population grow.” The United States uses less gold, steel, aluminum, copper, stone, cement, and even paper than it did at the start of this century, despite the continued increase in gross domestic product. Annual consumption of all but six of the 72 resources tracked by the U.S. Geological Service are “post peak.” We also use less fertilizer and water while growing more crops. Plastic consumption is up, as is energy use, but these two appear to have been decoupled from population and economic growth as well.

How does this dematerialization occur? Some examples may be useful. The dematerialization of soda cans is relatively easy to grasp, particularly for those of us who can remember the heavier cans of the 20th century. Aluminum cans weighed 85 grams when introduced in the 1950s. By 2011, the average can was under 13 grams. Cans today are not only thinner and lighter, they are produced more efficiently, with fewer separate sheets of metal.

Substitution can be an even more powerful source of dematerialization. Consider telecommunications. A single fiber optic cable made from less than 150 pounds of silica can carry the same volume of information as multiple 1‑ton copper cables. And were that not enough, satellite and wireless technologies enable us to bypass the use of physical cables altogether. We can communicate more and yet use vastly less material to do so. This not only saves copper, but other resources too. Think of all the paper saved by e‑mail, e‑banking, and e‑readers.

Markets or Malthus?

It was not expected to work out this way. Throughout the modern era, doomsayers have predicted the imminent depletion of one resource or another. Human impact on the natural environment was to increase inexorably with the rise of wealth, technology, and population, inevitably colliding with the earth’s natural carrying capacity. It seemed “logical and inevitable” that “the planet’s finite stock of these resources would someday be exhausted.”

Yet, this is not what happened. Instead, “capitalism and tech progress are now allowing us to tread more lightly on the earth instead of stripping it bare.” The Malthusian “limits to growth” have not merely been delayed or forestalled; they have been transcended.

This was neither planned, nor anticipated, nor is it the product of the ecological agenda advanced by the modern environmental movement. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, environmental advocates have called for constraints on consumption, limits on technology, and greater recycling. None of those impulses, in McAfee’s view, did much to encourage dematerialization. Indeed, he suggests, pushing for recycling may have cut the other way, insofar as recycling dulled the price signals that incentivized producers to do more with less. The environmental policies born of the 1970s may have “worked amazingly well” to reduce pollution and related environmental harms, but they played just a bit part in the story of dematerialization.

We do more with less not because of government regulation or administrative direction, but because of capitalism and technology. These are the dominant forces driving dematerialization in the most developed countries and they could unleash similar gains in the rest of the world. We “want more all the time, but not more resources,” McAfee notes. We want more of what resources can provide, and one way to get more is to do more with less. Market capitalism both facilitates and enhances the underlying incentives that drive efficiency gains and technological advance. This not only leads to dematerialization but also promotes “critical aspects of well‐​being,” including health and prosperity.

What’s left to be done

While celebrating dematerialization and dramatic improvements in many measures of human well‐​being, McAfee acknowledges there is more to be done. He devotes the latter part of the book to considering the challenges that remain. Dematerialization has occurred in the wealthiest nations, but it has yet to reach much of the world. Some types of pollution are declining, but others — including plastic waste and greenhouse gases — are not. He also worries about the potential effects of economic concentration and “disconnection among people and declines in social capital.” Not everything wrought by capitalism and technological advance has been positive, even if the net result is a good one.

McAfee is an optimist, but he sees serious storm clouds on the horizon. He is particularly concerned about the atmospheric increase in greenhouse gases and writes that reducing “the carbon intensity of our economic activities” is “the most important task for responsive governments.”

He is right to be concerned about climate change, but his discussion of the policy options is somewhat thin and disconnected from the central thrust of his book. Market‐​driven capitalism and accompanying technological advances drove dematerialization and could drive decarbonization as well, particularly if carbon emissions are priced. The proper suite of policies could facilitate a decarbonization in energy to rival the dematerialization we observed in telecommunications. Yet, the nature of any government interventions matters. Ill‐​conceived policies could blunt the market incentives that drive more efficient resource use.

McAfee gives such questions relatively little attention, however. He also is too quick to credit regulatory interventions for prior environmental gains, such as the reductions in air and water pollution over the past half‐​century. Those trends often began before the regulatory measures he celebrates, and some regulatory measures may well have caused more harm than good.

McAfee did not set out to write a wonky treatise on environmental policy, and More from Less is not one. The book tells the story of capitalism’s triumph over material scarcity with clarity and insight. He ably explains how modern society has achieved material ecological sustainability, and market capitalism was the cause. At a time when capitalism is viewed with suspicion, More from Less rises to its defense. Global challenges remain, but More from Less suggests solving such challenges will require more capitalism, not less.

This was originally published by the Cato Institute.

Blog Post | Population Growth

Against Environmental Anti-Humanism

There is no reason for pessimism about the future of our species or the planet.

On April 25, British Vogue published an article titled “Is Having a Baby in 2021 Pure Environ­mental Vandalism?” The author, Nell Frizzell, “worried about the sort of world” that she would bring her “child into — where we have perhaps just another 60 harvests left before our overworked soil gives out.” In the end, she decided to have a son and teach him to live within humanity’s “environmental means” and free of “the fever of consumerism.”

Frizzell is not alone in worrying about the increasing size of the world’s population and the accompanying growth in resource consumption. In the last few years, books, articles, and organizations arguing in favor of limits on population growth have proliferated in line with the increasing radicalization of the environmental movement. Where did that radicalization come from, and do the environmentalist extremists have a point?

Let’s start with a few examples. In February 2019, Repre­sentative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) told her Insta­gram viewers that, unless humanity takes urgent action on CO2 emissions, there is no hope for the future. “It is basically a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”

In May 2019, a CNN segment on the newly released report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services remarked that, to prevent an environmental catastrophe, “we must act now, consuming less, polluting less, having fewer children.”

The logical continuation of the concern with population growth is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, or VHEMT. The founder, Les Knight, told the Daily Mail in January 2019, “I’ve seen more and more articles about people choosing to remain child-free or to not add more to their existing family than ever. I’ve been collecting these stories and last year was just a groundswell of articles, and, in addition, there have been articles about human extinction.”

Most anti-natalists are content with voluntary reduction of birth rates. Others hope to achieve that goal through government enforcement. Prominent environmentalists, including Johns Hopkins University bioethicist Travis Rieder and science popularizer Bill Nye, have advocated — à la chinoise — in favor of special taxes or other state-imposed penalties on those with “too many children.”

As COVID-19 spread across the world in 2020, some environmental extremists rejoiced at the growing human death toll. The New York Times has noted that an upside of social-distancing efforts is that they may help fight climate change, and CNN ran the headline “There’s an unlikely beneficiary of coronavirus: The planet.” The BBC’s environmental correspondent gleefully reported that air pollution and CO2 emissions fell rapidly as the virus spread. Some environmentalists worried that, when things get better, post-recession economies might see a surge in harmful emissions.

Of course, most environmentalists are not anti-humanist or anti-natalist. But extremist rhetoric from the fringe of the environmental movement could have a lasting effect on America’s total fertility rate (1.779 births per woman in 2020), which is already well below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman — with serious consequences for U.S. economic growth and tax rates, as well as for the national fisc and the payment of unfunded liabilities accrued by the U.S. government.

A 2020 study in the journal Climatic Change found that 60 percent of U.S. respondents between the ages of 27 and 45 “reported being ‘very’ or ‘extremely concerned’ about the carbon footprint of procreation,” and 96.5 percent of respondents “were ‘very’ or ‘extremely concerned’ about the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world. This was largely due to an overwhelmingly negative expectation of the future with climate change.”

The word “ecology” was coined by the 19th-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Ecological concerns in Western Europe were largely rooted in the Romantic opposition to industrialization and urbanization. Such concerns were particularly prevalent in Germany, which was the center of the Counter-Enlightenment and a hotbed of the general disgust with “modernity.”

Environmentalism took longer to emerge in the United States. According to the EPA Journal(1985), “many environmental ideas [in America] first crystallized in 1962. That year saw the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, first in serial form in the New Yorker and then as a Houghton Mifflin best seller.” In her book, Carson attacked “indiscriminate use of pesticides, . . . causing a revolution in public opinion.” Within a year, Congress passed the 1963 Clean Air Act, giving the federal government more power to regulate the environment.

Five years later, The Population Bomb, by the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, caused a sensation of similar proportions. The book, which sold millions of copies and was translated into many languages, warned of the coming depletion of natural resources. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Ehrlich began, following with his famous prediction that “in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

The speed and extent of environmentalist triumphs in the United States are noteworthy. Earth Day was born on April 22, 1970. In September of that year, the U.S. Congress beefed up the 1963 Clean Air Act. By December, President Richard M. Nixon inaugurated the Environmental Protection Agency. Private environmental organizations also flourished, along with militant groups such as Greenpeace, which was established in 1971.

As the 1970s rolled on, American environmentalism became increasingly anti-capitalist. Arthur Herman of the Hudson Institute avers that it was the American writer Charles A. Reich who, with his book The Greening of America (1970), brought the German ideas to America. Herman notes that “modern ecology” in the United States “replayed the same enthusiasms that had animated every modern cultural regeneration movement since the German Romantics.”

Reich’s book was a best seller in 1970 and 1971. “For most Americans,” he wrote,

work is mindless, exhausting, boring, servile and hateful, something to be endured while “life” is confined to “time off.” At the same time our culture has been reduced to the grossly commercial; all cultural values are for sale, and those that fail to make a profit are not preserved. Our life activities have become artificial, vicarious and false to our genuine needs, activities fabricated by others and forced upon us.

That is exactly the Marxist critique of capitalism as “alienation” of labor. Instead of acknowledging that, however, Reich veered straight into environmentalism. Yet, like a typical Marxist, he predicted revolutionary turmoil. “There is a revolution coming,” Reich prophesied, and its “ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty — a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land.”

Other voices critical of capitalism’s effect on the environment soon emerged. They included the American biologist Barry Commoner, who argued that modern society was unsustainable. Unlike Ehrlich, who focused on “overpopulation,” Commoner focused on capitalist production techniques (e.g., synthetic textiles and pollution-causing detergents) and advocated “eco-socialism.”

In 1972, the British economist Barbara Ward and the Franco-American microbiologist René Dubos warned that the exponential economic growth of industrial society threatened the survival of the entire planet. In their view, wealth generation was no longer capitalism’s saving grace. It was a problem that needed to be tackled.

By the 1980s, environmental demands became more radical. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, for example, thought that reforming industrial society was not enough. Instead, he called for a change of the culture that allowed ecological destruction to exist in the first place. In his philosophy of “deep ecology,” Naess argued that the problem with modernity was that it placed humans above other life-forms, creating an inflated ego that enabled our species to destroy nature.

In The Modern Crisis (1986), the American social theorist Murray Bookchin called for the replacement of environmentally destructive capitalism. His utopia was radically egalitarian, with people, plants, and animals living on equal terms. As he saw it, such utopia had existed for thousands of years in the form of primitive societies. His vision amounted to an inversion of human progress. Civilization, he thought, was just domination over nature, wrenching away the last remnants of an earthly paradise that still existed among the aborigines of Africa and South America.

In his book In the Absence of the Sacred (1991), the American activist Jerry Mander argued that primitive societies are based on a rejection of modernity, not ignorance of it. He saw the subsistence lifestyle as a conscious cultural choice to avoid civilization. To this day, deep ecologists view primitive societies as not only ecologically harmonious but free of the desire to exploit nature.

In Earth in the Balance (1992), his critique of modernity, Al Gore fused some old ideas: that modern society was ecologically destructive, materialist, and shallow, that it shielded us from authentic experiences. The culprit, however, was new: humanity itself. In Gore’s vision, culture represented control over nature. To wit, stone tools and cave paintings were simply early human attempts to impose artificial order on the organic world. The West, capitalism, technology, and even sexism and racism were extensions of the innate human desire to dominate.

Some ecologists began to salivate at the thought of the end of the world. The American writer Edward Abbey dreamed of dams bursting and cities crumbling, forcing the last remnants of humanity to return to a primitive lifestyle. The French ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau called the idea that suffering and disease might be eliminated “not altogether a beneficial one.” He thought that “we must eliminate 350,000 people per day.”

The American environmentalist Christopher Manes called HIV/AIDS “the necessary solution” to environmental degradation. Paraphrasing Voltaire, he said that “if the AIDS epidemic didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent one.” In his 1994 best seller The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, Richard Preston of the New York Times wondered whether super-deadly viruses such as Ebola and Marburg might be the biosphere’s reaction against “the human parasite” and the “cancerous rot-outs” of advanced industrial societies.

The environmentalists of yore were concerned that we would run out of resources. Today’s environmentalists are concerned about, in addition to the well-known issue of rising CO2emissions, the possibility of “running out of nature.” As the American environmentalist Bill McKibben has explained, “it’s not that we’re running out of stuff. What we’re running out of is what the scientists call ‘sinks’ — places to put the by-products of our large appetites. Not garbage dumps, . . . but the atmospheric equivalent of garbage dumps.”

Overconsumption, in other words, will not exhaust planetary resources. Instead, the environmental catastrophe will be brought about by the destruction of humanity’s broader environmental support systems, such as high-quality soil, groundwater deposits, biodiversity, and so on. The key to understanding this “problem” is the concept of an ecological threshold, or “the point at which a relatively small change or disturbance in external conditions causes a rapid change in an ecosystem.”

Unfortunately for the environmentalists, scientific debate about “ecological thresholds” remains unsettled — even when it comes to the basic question of measurement. In August 2020, for example, the monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution published a study based on 36 meta-analyses of more than 4,600 individual studies covering the past 45 years of research on ecological thresholds. The nine authors — German, French, Irish, and Finnish ecologists — found that

threshold transgressions were rarely detectable, either within or across meta-analyses. Instead, ecological responses were characterized mostly by progressively increasing magnitude and variance when pressure increased. Sensitivity analyses with modeled data revealed that minor variances in the response are sufficient to preclude the detection of thresholds from data, even if they are present. The simulations reinforced our contention that global change biology needs to abandon the general expectation that system properties allow defining thresholds as a way to manage nature under global change.

Put differently, nature adjusts to human activity in a multitude of ways and, the greater the human impact, the greater the natural adjustment. So, instead of seeing natural collapse, humans are encountering nature’s resilience.

Several additional points are in order. First, many environmentalists assume that humans will continue to reproduce with abandon. In reality, birth rates are falling throughout much of the world. Writing in The Lancet, researchers at the University of Washington estimate that the global population will “peak in 2064 at 9.73 billion people and decline to 8.79 billion in 2100.” Other estimates, such as that of Wolfgang Lutz from the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, see the world’s population peaking at 8.9 billion in 2060 and declining to 7.8 billion (i.e., exactly where it stands today) by 2100.

Environmentalists worry that even if the human population shrinks, consumption of resources and the concomitant pressure on the environment will increase. Yet, as Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered when he looked at U.S. consumption of 72 resources (from aluminum to zinc), the absolute annual use of 66 resources peaked prior to 2019. Even energy use decreased between 2008 and 2017, while the U.S. economy expanded by 15 percent in the same period. The U.S. economy, in other words, has reached such a level of efficiency and sophistication that it is possible for it to produce an ever-increasing amount of goods and services while, at the same time, using ever fewer resources.

To give just one simple example: When aluminum cans were introduced in 1959, they weighed 85 grams. By 2011, they weighed 13 grams. Why pay more for inputs if you don’t have to? The universality of the profit motive should drive other economies in the same approximate direction.

Economic growth does not have to come from bigness — bigger and deeper mines, larger and more-polluting steel mills, and so on. It can and does come from “smartness” with processes such as miniaturization (the computing industry, for example, saw the replacement of massive mainframe computers with smaller and much more efficient personal computers) and dematerialization (a smartphone, for example, combines functions that previously required a myriad of separate devices, including a telephone, camera, radio, newspaper, compass, television set, alarm clock, photo album, voice recorder, and maps).

Environmentalists assume that humanity will sit idly by and allow environmental problems to overwhelm our planet. That is highly improbable given our species’ track record of tackling challenges. According to Ted Nordhaus of the Break­through Institute in California, it took six times as much land to feed a single person in the Neolithic period as it does now. If we were still harvesting einkorn with sticks and stones, we would certainly transgress our “environmental means,” as Nell Frizzell put it. Instead, we’ve improved our agricultural efficiency so much that less than 2 percent of the U.S. population has to farm at all.

In fact, if the productivity of the world’s farmers increases to U.S. levels, humanity will be able to restore at least 146 million hectares (about 560,000 square miles) of cropland to nature, according to Jesse Ausubel et al. in their article “Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing” (2013). Such efficiency-driven “human withdrawal from the landscape,” noted Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine, could be a “prelude to a vast ecological restoration” over the course of the 21st century.

Many additional problems identified by the environmentalists are being addressed or are on the cusp of being addressed. Forest coverage is growing in rich countries, species are being protected at record levels throughout the world, freshwater reserves are being replenished through desalination in the Middle East, soil erosion is being reduced through precision agriculture in Israel, and CO2emissions have fallen in nuclear-friendly France and Sweden. In the future, genetically modified crops could lead to a decline in the use of nitrogen and phosphorus, and wild fish stocks could bounce back through greater use of aquaculture, which is rapidly expanding in China.

What’s needed to address current and future problems are freedom, brainpower, and rational optimism, not hysteria, fatalism, and anti-human nihilism.

This essay first appeared in National Review.

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Economic Growth Is More Important than You Think

Growth is a saving grace for the world's poorest people, and also has a major impact on the daily lives of Americans and the rest of the developed world.

This article first appeared in CapX. To read the original, click here.

What is economic growth, and why should it matter to ordinary people? Those questions are hard to answer in a hysterical world where once-dry academic matters are now politicized without fail. Recently, commentators from all sides have taken to dismissing growth as a golden idol of narrow-minded capitalists. Likewise, many people see the pursuit of growth as an alternative, not a complement, to the pursuit of social needs like public health and sustainability.

These narratives are understandable, considering the misinformed and tone-deaf ways in which many public figures have attempted to advocate the importance of growth and economic activity, particularly during the current pandemic. But the narratives themselves could not be more misleading. Economic growth affects the lives of ordinary people in many crucial ways, not just in the West, but importantly in countless developing nations too. In fact, growth is generally the greatest source of improvement in global living standards.

If we visualize the economy as a pie, then growth can be visualized as the pie getting bigger. Most economists measure growth using a metric called Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which defines the pie’s “ingredients” as consumption, investment, government spending and net exports. In developing countries, growth is largely driven by investment, while wealthier countries tend to rely on innovation to continue growing.

These working definitions, while highly simplified, are better than nothing. They are important because they can make it easier to understand how GDP correlates with countless key metrics of living standards.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, Real Average GDP per Capita grew by 42% between 1990 and 2018. That growth corresponded to major decreases in extreme povertyinfant mortality and undernourishment.

Growth also increases access to resources that make people safer and healthier. A 2019 paper shows that, while disaster-related fatality rates fell for all global income groups between 1980 and 2016, developing countries in the early stages of growth experienced the greatest improvements. That is because those countries made the greatest relative advances in infrastructure and safety measures—advances facilitated by growth.

Growth is a saving grace for the world’s poorest people, but it also has a major impact on the daily lives of Americans and the rest of the developed world, and that impact is especially important in the age of coronavirus. For example, continuous growth has led to lifesaving breakthroughs in medical technology and research, which has allowed humanity to fight COVID-19 more quickly and effectively than we ever could have in the past. Vaccines for certain ailments took decades to develop as late as the mid-20th century, but it is quite possible that a vaccine for COVID-19 will be widely available just one year after the virus’s initial outbreak.

To many supposedly environmentally conscious critics, it seems intuitive that growth is not sustainable. However, sustainability-based criticisms of growth tend to ignore the reality that growth leads to green innovations that help the planet. Labor-augmenting technologies allow us to produce more while conserving resources and protecting the environment. Moreover, wealthier countries are better equipped to develop and adopt green technologies.

MIT scientist Andrew McAfee has documented many of the concrete environmental benefits of growth in his recent book, More From Less. McAfee notes that increases in America’s population and productive activity in recent decades have coincided with significant decreases in air and water pollution, along with gross reductions in the uses of water, fertilizer, minerals and other resources—all because economic growth and market coordination led to improvements in manufacturing and technology. For facilitating this process, which McAfee calls “dematerialization,” growth should be seen as a key to sustainability, not a barrier.

In a broader sense, growth has made our lives more convenient, dynamic and entertaining via developments in consumer technologies and other innovations. Imagine quarantining for five months (and counting) without the internet, PCs or smartphones. Many people would have no way of doing their jobs. Even for those that could, life would be much more difficult, not to mention dull.

Indeed, if one thing could be said to summarize the impact of growth around the world, it would be that growth makes everyone’s life easier. For instance, the amount of labor needed for average workers to purchase countless basic goods and services is at an all-time low and decreasing, largely because supply chains have grown and become more efficient. The result is that ordinary people, especially those in lower income groups with relatively greater reliance on basic goods, are better off.

The story of economic growth is in many ways the story of how cooperation and exchange can defeat poverty and scarcity. The better we understand that, the more likely we will be to support policies which allow resources to flow into areas that need them the most. Broadly speaking, no political idea has been more effective in this regard than free trade.

Knowing the importance of innovation to human well-being should also encourage us to embrace new technology instead of fearing it. We must therefore be wary of overbearing regulations and fiscal policies that prevent ideas from flourishing.

Most importantly, we should not listen to those who claim that economic growth is a pointless, abstract goal that only benefits the rich and leaves ordinary people behind. Growth is a vital driver of progress in modern society and should be taken seriously for the sake of humanity and the planet.