In my circle of friends, there is much concern about living sustainably. Several assumptions about this matter tend to go together: (a) that the planet offers only a fixed capacity to support the population, so that we in the affluent countries are morally obligated to “reduce our ecological footprints”; (b) that technology is harmful to nature, and indeed the higher the technology, the more it depletes the earth’s resources and robs the poor of their fair share; and (c) that we should all share access to the earth’s resources in a cooperative way, by restraining commercial competitiveness and materialism. I have been uncomfortable with this overall philosophy for a long time and now I want to point out why.
The concept of the “global footprint” is more misleading than helpful. It is claimed that we have to start conserving because we are using up more than our share of the world’s resources. Indeed, if everyone in the world consumed as much of the earth’s resources – food, wood, minerals, energy, etc. — then three planets the size of ours would be required. To prevent such inequities, and the looming starvation and economic collapse, we must voluntarily reduce our own standard of living, our own “ecological footprint.”
To calculate ecological footprints, a number of factors are combined to give an overall score for an individual or for a nation. The main factor in that equation is the quantity of greenhouse gases produced. If GHGs were removed from the equation, the rich countries actually would not be significantly out of line with the less developed countries. Now, I will agree that we need to reduce our GHG emissions; that part of the ecological footprint theory seems perfectly true. However it is our emissions that have to be reduced, not our consumption of resources per se. That is, we would have to stop using fossil fuels even if they even existed in infinite supply, because doing so is necessary to prevent global warming.
Why is this distinction important? Because climate change is not a Malthusian problem, whereas the over-consumption of resources is precisely Malthusian. It was Thomas Malthus who predicted that in time humankind will run out of food because our population will grow faster than the food supply. Only famine, disease, and war can provide positive checks against this imbalance.
Malthus was proved wrong long ago. However, there is still a Malthusian “folk theory” that dominates everywhere: the notion of the “carrying capacity” of land. Every plot of land supposedly can sustain only a finite number of human beings, so we must live within that reality by curbing consumption — or, better yet, by limiting human reproduction. The new concept of the ecological or global “footprint” is basically a new version of this older theory of “carrying capacity,” though with one additional factor -- the aforementioned greenhouse gas emissions, which is the only factor that actually worries me. I am trying to reduce my emissions, and I hope you do so too. But it is high time we re-examine the concept of “carrying capacity” or “global footprint,” for it is leading us to make harmful decisions.
“Carrying capacity” has been defined as the “maximum number of people that a given land area will maintain in perpetuity under a given system of usage without land degradation setting in.” The truth is, the “carrying capacity” of a piece of land is not fixed, but varies with the technology that people use is producing goods from it – i.e. with the “system of usage.” The more advanced the prevailing technology, the higher will ordinarily be the earth's carrying capacity. Yes, technology depends on exploiting some of the earth's resources, but it can also make the earth more productive — increase its carrying capacity.
Take agriculture, for instance. Ester Boserup (see photo) was a Danish scholar who worked at the United Nations on agricultural issues. Her book, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure (1965) made a huge impact in the social sciences when it was published, for it demonstrated in a new way that Malthus had misunderstood the causal relationship between population growth and food. She argued that the evolution of agriculture was a process that normally had to be pushed by the increasing density of human population.
Her review of economic history extends back into pre-historic times and forward to the mid-20th century. As anthropologists have come to recognize, hunters and gatherers did not readily take up farming. They only did so, and reluctantly at best, when they could not feed themselves in any other way. And the same goes for the adoption of increasingly advanced methods of food production. Even primitive societies today that grow food without plows or draft animals often resist superior technology when their government offers it to them. Why? Because it requires more work. Yes, more advanced tools can obtain more food from a given amount of land, but only with an increasing amount of labor. Necessity is the mother of invention. Only necessity will drive farmers to increase the carrying capacity of their fields by adopting more intensive types of agriculture.
Previously, scientists had considered land as either cultivated or uncultivated, but Boserup developed five stages of increasingly intense forms of cultivation, according to the length of fallow between periods of cultivation. The lowest level is “slash-and-burn” farming, which burns a plot of forest land, cultivates it briefly, then leaves it fallow 15-20 years before starting over. The highest level is multi-cropping, with no fallow. The move from one level of intensity to the next is caused by population growth. Each such "advance" entails more labor per plot of land, and thus the intensification increases the productivity of land and reduces that of labor.
This pattern, which is found all around the world, shows that population growth causes agricultural growth. And empirically it holds up. Malthusians have it backward. Population growth does not exhaust the soil, but increases its “carrying capacity” by forcing technological advances.
In a later book, Population and Technological Change: A Study of Long-term Trends (1981), Boserup extended her insight from agriculture to the rest of economic production. She showed that many technologies can be developed only if the population is dense enough to yield “economies of scale.“ Still, she applied her economic model only to the level of industrial production, not the kind of “knowledge” economy in which you and I earn our living today. To understand the new system we turn to a new book by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Revolutionary Wealth, which reveals the inadequacy of all three of the assumptions mentioned above.
In Canada and the other affluent societies, very little wealth comes from farming or manufacturing, but from jobs that involve intangible products. When we write songs, design software, advise investors, conduct therapy sessions, or direct plays we are trafficking in knowledge, not physical materials. Today almost all good jobs are in the “knowledge” sector. Only four percent of Canadians are farmers, and we are exporting unskilled industrial jobs overseas. Indeed, that is how the less developed countries will escape from poverty — through the adoption of our technology. Moreover, knowledge (unlike material things) is intangible -- neither scarce nor even finite. It is not conserved by any law of thermodynamics. If I give you my money or my property, you will own it but I no longer will. If I give you my knowledge, we both will have it. Economics has been the study of scarce goods and commodities, but when it comes to the economics of knowledge, we have to start thinking differently.
The Tofflers explain how Asia happened to make its great breakthrough to modernity and prosperity. In 1965 the Japanese auto manufacturers imported digital technology from the United States, where it was not being widely adopted, and began to assemble cars with robots. The precision and quality of their cars became far superior to those of other countries. They used the most advanced technology as well to produce cameras, television sets, VCRs, and so on, exporting so many products that the US finally slapped trade limits on their semi-conductors.
Next these newly rich Japanese firms began offloading their low-tech factory jobs to Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As the workforce in those countries shifted from agriculture to industry, they began acquiring new hand-me-down knowledge about finance, about markets and marketing, about import-export rules and business in general. These recipient countries experienced lengthening life expectancy, reduced rates of population growth, and a a 400 percent increase in average real incomes.
How is poverty reduced? Not by aid (though that can be helpful too) but primarily by external inputs of capital, plus relevant knowledge that allows the poor to become entrepreneurs and manufacturers. Curtailing the spread of high technology would condemn the whole Third World to perpetual poverty. Yet that is what many of my friends would like to do: stop technological change. In the name of equity and justice toward the downtrodden of the earth, they want to stop economic growth and persuade everyone to consume fewer material goods.
This is misplaced kindness. Wealth nowadays comes from knowledge, science, and technology. Moreover, jobs in the “knowledge economy“ involve work with intangibles and, accordingly, require the extraction of less and less material resources from the earth. I am not justifying extravagance, waste, and materialistic greed; far from it. But I am pointing out that real progress for humankind will not come from reducing our standards of living, but rather from increasing the carrying capacity of our planet through the creation and diffusion of knowledge and technology. Spend your energy lavishly, acquiring and spreading useful knowledge; that's how you can make a difference in the world.
We can increase efficiency. When that happens, wealth can grow. We can all even reduce our ecological footprints while increasing our consumption.
Finally, I want to mention how that happens. Technology is wonderfully responsive to the market. When we begin to deplete a resource, its price will increase in a capitalist economy. Prices are an extraordinarily effective signal that an opportunity exists to serve others by producing a product from a different material, or by using the scarce material more efficiently. That is technological innovation. Economists know this better than anyone, and economists worry less about their global footprint than anyone else.
Now you can stop worrying about yours. But do reduce your CO2 emissions; that's an entirely different matter — one that we definitely should worry about.