Is the Earth Full?

In 1965, the American economist Kenneth Boulding popularized the phase “Spaceship Earth” expressing his concern about the fragility of our planet. His logic went something like this: since the Earth’s resources are finite, just as bacteria growing in a Petri dish will eventually exhaust their resources, we too must sooner or later run up against the Earth’s limits. This is a deep current in contemporary environmentalism and one expressed today in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman. As my friend Roger Meiners observes, this line is “…a timeless classic that always sells well.”

Wait, wait, I’ve seen this movie before!

One of the earliest examples is Fairfield Osborn’s 1948 book, Our Plundered Planet. In 1970, the definitive work of this movement, The Limits To Growth, was published. Limits To Growth predicted that, at present rates of consumption, supplies of many important commodities would be exhausted by 1992. More recently the Archbishop of Canterbury called for an end to economic growth to save the planet, and the World Wildlife Fund warns that we are consuming 20 percent more natural resources a year than the Earth can provide.

Economic growth is neither designed nor intended to ruin the Earth. And while it is true that nature has sometimes been destroyed in the quest for economic growth, the aim of economic development is to generate resources that improve the condition of humanity. Across time and cultures, we have reaped the benefits, as technological advances and economic growth have proved the only sure path to a cleaner, safer environment. (For a sobering look at the condition of the “people’s” air and water, check this link out.)

This quest for progress benefits not only present generations, but future ones as well. By using natural resources to create wealth today, we increase the probability that those yet unborn will be able to meet their material needs better than any preceding generation. Prosperity, now and in the future, increases the odds that we will avoid a life that Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The Earth’s resources are not in any meaningful sense fixed. Every material that we consider a resource was at one time worthless. The economist Erich Zimmermann explains. “Previous to the emergence of man, the earth was replete with fertile soil, with trees and edible fruits, with rivers and waterfalls, with coal beds, oil pools, and mineral deposits; the forces of gravitation, of electro-magnetism, of radio-activity were there; the sun set forth its life-bringing rays, gathered the clouds, raised the winds; but there were no resources.”

“Resources are, reserves become.” Not until human creativity goes to work does any physical thing become useful and valuable. This explains how many resources are evermore abundant and less expensive in the face of growing consumption.

Our manipulation of resources fosters economic progress. This allows us time to participate in our communities, create a responsible and enjoyable culture, and live long and fulfilling lives. Our technology frees us from drudgery, cleans our water, powers medical equipment, and fuels the jet turbines and diesel engines that make global trade possible. In sum, all this allows us to fulfill the most basic of our aspirations, i.e., improving the wellbeing of our loved ones.

Progress over the past 100 years has been stunning. Life expectancy has more than doubled from a world average of only 30 years in 1900, rising to 46 years by 1950, and is now for (both sexes) 66.57 years. The World Health Organization thinks life expectancy will increase to 73 years by 2020. This is an unprecedented improvement in the condition of humanity.

The idea that economic growth must be curtailed is cruel tragedy in a world where billions of people still live in dire poverty.