In seeking to prevent environmental breakdown, what counts above all is not the new things we do, but the old things we stop doing. Renewable power, for instance, is useful in preventing climate chaos only to the extent that it displaces fossil fuels. Unfortunately, new technologies do not always lead automatically to the destruction of old ones.
In the UK, for example, building new offshore wind power has been cheaper than building new gas plants since 2017. But the wholesale disinvestment from fossil fuels you might have expected is yet to happen. Since the UN climate summit last November, the government has commissioned one new oil and gas field, and reportedly plans to license six more. It has overridden the Welsh government to insist on the extension of the Aberpergwm coalmine. Similar permissions have been granted in most rich nations, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Why? Politics. Fossil fuel companies need spend just a fraction of their income on lobbying – funding politicians and their parties, buying the services of thinktanks and public relations agencies, using advertising to greenwash their credentials – to impede the energy transition and defend their investments. Fossil fuels will become stranded assets only when governments insist that they be left in the ground. Yet, somehow, a major strand of thinking in rich nations continues to ignore this obvious truth.
The latest example is the economist Oded Galor’s much-praised new book, The Journey of Humanity. Galor argues that the driving forces of human development override setbacks such as wars, pandemics and depressions to deliver ever-increasing prosperity and welfare. They will, he believes, continue to propel a “relentless march of humanity” towards an “even more bountiful future”.
While the book makes some interesting points, you might have imagined that climate and ecological breakdown, as they present the greatest threat to the optimism that he professes, would be covered in depth. But while he acknowledges their importance, his treatment is remarkably brief, even glib. The only source he cites in support of his main contention on the issue is Bill Gates, whose techno-utopianism and political naivety are notorious among environmentalists.
Instead of detailed analysis, I found handwaving and magical thinking. Galor claims, without providing the necessary evidence, that “the power of innovation accompanied by fertility decline” may allow us to avoid a difficult choice between economic growth and environmental protection. He asserts that a decline in fertility will buy us the time we need to develop unspecified “revolutionary technologies” that will one day rescue us from the climate crisis. So, rather than encouraging countries to adopt “clean energy technologies and environmental regulations”, we should instead help them further to reduce fertility.
Just a few problems. While the decline in population growth rates is real enough, it comes far…
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