Change GDP, change the world

Chart from Grist

David Roberts

It is taken for granted by just about everyone that the developing world is going to grow like gangbusters over the next few decades. Population will grow, GDP will grow, and consumption of energy and other resources will grow. Look at this, from the BP Energy Outlook 2030:

This expectation — nay, this certainty — shapes all our forecasts, fears, and plans for the coming century. Just as certainly, we are approaching several biophysical thresholds.

Yikes! A collision of humanity and ecology seems inevitable. It’s no wonder there’s such a fervent desire for a “miracle” energy technology breakthrough. It seems only a deus ex machina can get us out of this pickle.

But what if the developing world didn’t need to grow quite this much, quite this fast? What if social and political change — changes in government policy, economics, cultural norms, etc. — can do for demand what technological change can do for supply?

One has to be careful here. Obviously the people of the developing world deserve a decent standard of living just as much as anyone in OECD countries. But we’re too quick to equate GDP, a measure of economic activity, with quality of life. Improving life for the people of the developing world need not look like the kind of GDP growth on the chart at the top.

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