If the Earth Is Full, It Shouldn’t Also Get Poorer

Jun 9, 2011

Tom Friedman had an interesting column yesterday with the intentionally provocative title of "The Earth is Full."  While the title indicates that Mr. Friedman hasn’t been to Central Pennsylvania, West Texas, the Australian Outback or numerous other “not full” places, the piece makes a very important point about the Earth’s resources – namely, they are limited and we use them up at our peril. There is only so much groundwater, clean air, rhinoceros horn, shark fin, buffalo and Chesapeake oyster to go around (just by way of example). If we use them faster than they replenish then we will suffer and, in some cases, die.  Over the course of human history there have been thousands of societies that have faltered and failed because they couldn’t manage natural resources well. Economists call it the “principle of scarcity” and one of the great things about the free enterprise system (when it’s allowed to work properly) is that it attaches increasing values to decreasing resources and thus can put inherent limits on consumption.  

But Friedman’s article gets strange at the end when he tries to address solutions.  In particular, this section employs what I call the “Let’s All Just Move Back to the Happy Farm Hypothesis”:

We will realize, he predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less. “How many people,” Gilding asks, “lie on their death bed and say, ‘I wish I had worked harder or built more shareholder value,’ and how many say, ‘I wish I had gone to more ballgames, read more books to my kids, taken more walks?’ To do that, you need a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff."

If we all just kicked back and quit reaching for the brass ring then everything would be cool and the world would glide back into balance.  After all, aren’t those people who work too hard and strive for money and success just annoying?

The only trouble is that those hard working types are responsible for the creation of a few things that even people back on the communal farm like and appreciate:

  • Medical technology;
  • Efficient solar and wind technology;
  • Personal computers, iPads and cellphones;
  • Education and information;
  • Reliable electricity;
  • Potable water;
  • Employment;
  • A sustainable tax base that pays for common social goods.

Just to name a few. The fact is that economic growth is the answer, not the problem. Societies rarely, if ever, get cleaner or happier as they get poorer. Quite the opposite. The highest population growth rates are in the poorest countries.  On the other side of the coin, the United States has more trees today than it did in 1920.  That’s because we had economic growth that allows us to afford to devote more land to trees – and technological advancements that allow us to use our agricultural land more efficiently.

The answer to diminishing resources isn’t to give up and move back to 1850. It to pursue economic growth that will allow us to develop the capacity and knowledge to manage those resources better.

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