Growth, Interrupted

Why the Planet Needs More Than Just Economic Development

Courtesy Reuters

Bjørn Lomborg's essay (“Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now,” July/August 2012) looks backward to criticize an antiquated and narrow environmentalism. He writes that "the world is not running out of resources, not running out of food, and not gagging on pollution, and the world's population and industrial output are rising sustainably." His essay ends with a vague paean to economic growth, but he leaves economic growth undefined and its virtues unqualified. He offers no analysis of the meanings of economic growth in different cultures, for example, or for species other than humans.

In April 2012, the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, released the report “People and the Planet,” which provides a more realistic and balanced picture of human well-being and offers a vision of the future that goes beyond Lomborg's perspective. This report results from two years of extensive data gathering and broad consultation, deliberation, and debate among an international working group of experts in diverse fields.

The conclusion was that the twenty-first century is a critical period for people and the planet. The global population reached seven billion in 2011, and UN projections indicate that it will reach between eight billion and 11 billion by 2050. The material consumption of the wealthy is far above a level that could be sustained on a global scale, especially given the rise in the world’s population. By contrast, the world’s poorest people need to consume more to escape extreme poverty.

As Lomborg points out, the global population growth rate has slowed since the late 1960s. But the trend line disguises regional disparities. The least developed countries have the highest fertility rates, and the more developed countries (and increasingly countries in Asia and Latin America) have the lowest. The poorest countries are thus neither experiencing nor benefiting from declining population growth rates.

The combination of a rising global population and increasing overall material consumption cannot be sustained on a planet with finite resources. As both have continued to spike, the world

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