Philip Cross: Reality’s insoluble trilemma: More people, more wealth, more green? Choose two

While overly ideological in substance and wording, Cross does have a point regarding trade-offs in both the Canadian and international contexts:

Collectivists subscribe to the fantasy that we humans can simultaneously expand our population, reduce our environmental footprint and continue to enjoy rising per capita incomes. This displays an utter lack of awareness that the three are a trilemma at the global level. In a trilemma you can achieve only two of your three goals simultaneously; whichever two we select, the other necessarily falls by the wayside. Fortunately, the choice is not hard for sensible people to make.

Most of the Left clearly supports an expanding human population. This is implicit in their belief, which they share with just about everyone, that every individual has worth — and deserves, they would add,  support such as universal health care and a basic income. Demographers agree population will continue to increase from its current eight billion to somewhere between 10 and 11 billion people. Most members of the Left will not object.

At the same time, collectivists regard any recession in incomes or rise in unemployment as intolerable. Witness their near-hysterical reaction to the tightening of monetary policy in response to the inevitable surge in inflation following excessive fiscal and monetary stimulus during the pandemic. The Left does tolerate chronic slow growth in developed nations — though without conceding that the taxes and regulations it favours often cause it. Economic growth is even more imperative for the hundreds of millions of people in other countries still living in “where will my next meal come from?” poverty.

Finally, the Left holds that the environment and all plant and animal life are sacred. Humans should therefore save the environment and protect the planet whatever it costs. The completely unrealistic goal is to freeze nature in its current state. But “protecting the planet” at all costs is fundamentally anti-human. We exist and thrive because of our ability to control the planet’s environment. As documented by the economic historian Robert Fogel, this control allowed an explosive increase in human numbers and longevity over the last three centuries, while the average body size of adults expanded 50 per cent as our living standard soared.

Something has got to give. We cannot have more people, rising incomes, and a smaller environmental footprint at the same time. If we continue to expand population and raise incomes, there is bound to be a growing impact on the environment as demand rises for land, food, energy and water. We can try to limit our per capita consumption of resources but more people and rising incomes will put relentless upward pressure on total consumption.

The only way to reconcile rising population and a lower environmental impact would be to sharply reduce the resources available to the average person. This would entail not just a short-lived recession — which we heard repeatedly in 2022 is unacceptable — but a drastic reduction in living standards, which would be especially harsh for the world’s poor

Our final option would be to minimize our environmental impact while maintaining high living standards. But this would require sharply reducing the number of people, which contradicts the goal of a growing population. In his recent book Fossil Future, Alex Epstein cites a biologist who wrote that “Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.” Such anti-human attitudes are repugnant to most people.

If curtailing the number of humans is immoral, while engineering a sharp reduction in our standard of living is unacceptable, the only option left to us is to accept that a planet with more humans enjoying rising incomes inevitably will have a growing impact on the environment. The renowned economic historian Douglas North was frank in his description of how “a necessary precondition to understanding the evolving human environment is understanding the revolutionary changes resulting in the ‘conquest’ of the physical environment.” Epstein echoes that sentiment, noting that much of the improvement in the human condition has resulted from our increasing ability to control an often-hostile environment while extracting more of the planet’s bountiful resources; in his words, eliminating human impact “is an anti-human moral goal.”

The global challenge is to minimize our environmental footprint without compromising either human health or rising incomes. It is simply unrealistic to say we can increase our population, maintain our standard of living and lift billions of people out of abject poverty without impacting the planet’s environment. You can only choose two of these goals, and it is obvious which two most people will opt for.

Philip Cross is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Source: Philip Cross: Reality’s insoluble trilemma: More people, more wealth, more green? Choose two

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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