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Will mankind drain the world of resources and ruin the environment? Must we curtail economic growth in order to ensure our long-term survival? Only if we give up on markets and give-in to central economic direction and control. Ronald Bailey at Reason.com covers the technical assumptions underlying a recent piece of neo-Malthusian “research” purporting to demonstrate the impossibility of environmentally-sustainable economic growth. Bailey’s article makes a great follow-up to my last post, “The Greening-Carbon Nexus“, in which I discussed the bloom in vegetation taking place around the globe attributable to greater levels of atmospheric CO2.

Bailey describes the concept of “decoupling” resource use from economic growth as fundamental to long-term environmental sustainability. This is another twist on good old-fashioned growth in factor productivity. In the new research cited by Bailey, Australian hydrologist James Ward and his co-authors assert that population growth and consumption will eventually overwhelm technological advance. However, it has long been recognized by demographers that freedom from need and growth in material comfort reduces fertility. Bailey notes that world population growth has been decelerating for many years, and the global population is likely to stabilize within a couple of decades.

Ward, et al lean heavily on assumptions about how various classes of resources are not substitutable, and that mankind will run-up against hard production requirements for minimum resource use, a point at which many tradeoffs become impossible. Bailey summarizes their results:

They crank the notion that there are nonsubstitutable physical limits on material and energy resources through their equations until 2100, and they find that eventually consumption of both rise at the same rate as economic growth. QED: Economic growth is unsustainable. Or as they report, ‘Permanent decoupling (absolute or relative) is impossible for essential, non-substitutable resources because the efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits.’

Bailey proceeds to pick apart the assumptions made by Ward and his co-authors. First, even if true, those assumptions would apply with much more force to physical outputs, as opposed to service outputs. The latter are likely to continue on a path garnering an increasing share of world output over time. More fundamentally, Ward, et al give short-shrift to the limitless potential of human ingenuity. A few specific examples of the physical limits they contemplate are already verifiably false, having been overcome by technological breakthroughs. This includes agricultural productivity related to enhancements in plant photosynthesis, new manufacturing methods requiring dramatically fewer raw materials, and methods of energy production that are already available, if not yet heavily relied upon. A glaring assumption made by Ward, et al is that the use of fossil fuels will continue to grow through at least the year 2100. In fact, existing alternatives such as nuclear power might well be more economical. Ironically, greater adoption of nuclear power is held hostage by the political resistance of groups who oppose the burning of fossil fuels.

Bailey also cites the work of Jesse Ausubel, whom I cited at length in a post on “rewilding” in 2015. Ausubel’s work shows that Americans’ use of a variety of productive inputs already has “decoupled absolutely” from production, or is approaching that point. That includes farmland, water, timber, plastics, aluminum and steel. Our use of all of those things has peaked and is now in decline. Ausubel’s work implies that “decoupling” is just a matter of time for many other resources for which use is growing at rates declining relative to production. These trends will spread overseas with continued economic development.

Efficiencies like these are a direct effect of technological advance, but the process of technical change is dependent on incentives, which are, in turn, dependent on market prices, profit opportunities, and secure property rights. First, the funding of research into new techniques and methods is driven in large part by market incentives. That’s the real mechanism at play when we marvel that “necessity is the mother of invention”. Necessity, of course, is often manifest in scarcity of existing productive inputs and high input prices.

New technologies present profit opportunities by promising lower input costs, greater production, or other competitive advantages. The adoption of a new technology nearly always entails short-run costs and long-term rewards, both of which are driven by market prices. As the pace of adoption accelerates, the costs of new technologies tend to decrease along with scale economies and sheer experience, reinforcing the process of diffusion. The driving force in all cases is the competitive market and freedom to trade for one’s own benefit. The increasing efficiency of resource use embodied in the “decoupling” phenomena is dependent on the existence of accurate market incentives and secure rights to the rewards that efficiencies in production can bring.

And what if government responds to political pressure by imposing bureaucratically-established production limits, market quotas, efficiency standards, process rules, regulatory reporting, and tax penalties. Apart from direct confiscation and the additional confiscatory risk these actions entail, compliance requires producers to ignore market incentives to one degree or another. These measures force adoption of  less efficient technologies than the market would dictate and add resource costs that would otherwise be absent. The inescapable fact is that market incentives are blunted or destroyed in the process; the consequent waste of resources prevents the kind of natural improvements in factor productivity that lead to decoupling and sustainability.

Sadly, such regulatory actions are often borne out of private rent-seeking efforts. Dominant market players believe that smaller competitors will struggle under the compliance burden created by regulation, so they work with government officials in an effort to have these rules promulgated. This adds a greater degree of market concentration and monopoly power, which implies an efficiency loss relative to competition. Under the protection of regulators, dominant players can survive for too long using wasteful techniques and inputs. Fortunately, with time, new technologies often outpace even these dominant players and the outmoded regulatory rules they rely upon.

Just as wasteful are authoritarian efforts to promote new technologies before the market is ready to adopt them. Picking technological winners and losers is fraught with peril for society. The government usually lacks the foresight possessed by the market, forcibly redirecting resources from one use to another with little consequence for failure except at the taxpayer’s expense. The premature investment is prone to burdening society with stale or defective early versions of new technology. This is not a reliable way to achieve efficiency in resource use. One of the sure signs that such efforts entail waste is the propensity for insiders to be awarded subsidies for promoting politically-favored technologies. Government is invariably drawn to such opportunities for graft.

I conclude with a quote of my earlier post on Ausubel’s work (linked above):

It’s worth emphasizing that the nature rebound already taking place in the developed world is largely a product of free market capitalism and the growth in wealth and technology they have made possible. A great benefit of secure property rights for society, and for the environment, is that owners have powerful incentives to husband their resources. Likewise, the profit motive gives producers strong incentives to reduce waste and improve productivity. As economic development becomes more widespread, these incentives are promoting a healthier balance between man and nature.