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ArrowArrow issues to consider... > running out of time?

Industry & Ecology
Are we running out of time?

by Pete Geddes

Many of my friends express concern at the rapid economic growth of China and India (9.9 and 8.4 percent annually, respectively). They fear the environment will suffer greatly if all these people adopt an American lifestyle.

Since the Earth’s natural resources (e.g., timber, fossil fuels, and minerals) are limited, aren’t there natural limits to growth? My friends are concerned that global population growth and increased economic prosperity will inevitably deplete our natural resources.

But is this really the case? While there are areas of genuine environmental concern, there are also reasons for optimism. Worries about resource scarcity are rooted in the ideas of the eighteenth-century English economist Thomas Malthus. His 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, argued that rapid population growth would exceed the carrying capacity of the earth. The result would be mass starvation.

Environmentalists have long accepted this notion as gospel. Their most vocal proponent, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, has repeatedly made dire predictions. “It seems certain,” he and his wife Anne wrote in The End of Affluence (1974), “that energy shortages will be with us for the rest of the century, and that before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity in which many things besides energy will be in short supply. Starvation among people will be accompanied by starvation of industries for the materials they require.”

In 1980, Global 2000, a report addressed to President Jimmy Carter, carried the same theme. It predicted that population would increase faster than world food production. As a result, food prices would rise by between 35 and 115 percent by the year 2000. In reality, during that time the world food commodity index fell by 55 percent.

Per capita food production has risen by over 20 percent since 1961. This improvement is not confined to rich countries. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, calories consumed per capita per day are 27 percent higher in the Third World today than they were in 1963.

Famines do not result from failures of agricultural productivity. Rather they occur because of trade barriers, political corruption, war, and insecure property rights. This last point is particularly important, for when people live in a society that protects and rewards their labors, they use their talents to arrange resources to advance social well-being.

Does economic growth really stress the environment? If so, then countries with large GDPs should have the worst environmental quality. And this is clearly not the case. The air and water are cleaner in developed countries because their citizens have both the inclination and the resources to care for the environment. Indeed it is the lack of economic growth that keeps many in poverty. And the poor can’t afford environmental quality.

Will we destroy our environment on the path to prosperity? Are we, as critics assert, like the man falling from a ten-story building and concluding as he passes the second story, “so far so good”?

There are reasons to think not. In the long term, technological improvements and productivity gains allow us to use fewer material inputs -- and to emit ever fewer pollutants -- per unit of economic output. This reduces both our economic and ecological footprint. This reality is driven by human inventiveness.

The poorest countries are beneficiaries. They’re able to adopt our modern, efficient, and less environmentally damaging technologies -- and shortcut the road to environmental quality.

These kinds of ideas are often derided by environmentalists as “technical fixes.” But it is precisely these technical fixes (e.g., GM crops and synthetic chemicals) that allow us greater yields on the same amount of land. As a result, the United States can afford to place 50 million acres of farmland into conservation reserves while remaining a major food exporter.

The notion that the environment would somehow benefit from six billion people “going back to nature” is a dangerous myth. Economic growth and ecological progress are not contradictory; the former is prerequisite for the latter.

Management guru Peter Drucker wrote, “The basic no longer capital, nor natural resources, nor labor. It is and will be, knowledge.” If we create institutions that foster innovation and reward the development of environmentally friendly technologies, our considered optimism is justified.

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