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Why economic growth hasn’t ruined the planet

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The first Earth Day, in 1970, came at a gloomy time for the environment. The previous year, Cleveland’s polluted Cuyahoga River caught on fire again. Books such as “The Population Bomb” and “Famine 1975!” suggested that the world would quickly run out of the natural resources necessary to support a growing population. The bison and the humpback whale were near extinction.

“Earth Day was a plea to stop this insanity. We were going to choke and starve ourselves and our planet to death,” Andrew McAfee, co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, said during a TEDxCambridge talk earlier this month. The solution was a philosophy of “degrowth,” of consuming and producing less.

However, degrowth didn’t happen. In the decades since Earth Day, population growth in the United States continued at the same pace, gross domestic product growth has increased, and our desire for material goods has not abated — yet the planet remains intact.

That’s because this growth coincided with reductions in the use of water, metals such as iron and steel, and minerals such as phosphate and potash, McAfee said. This phenomenon of dematerialization is best illustrated by a 1991 Radio Shack ad in which 11 of the 13 advertised devices — including a PC, portable CD player, camcorder, and answering machine — are now contained in a single smartphone.

“For the first time in human history, we have decoupled output growth from resource consumption,” McAfee said. “We have finally figured out how to give ourselves more and more while taking less and less from the planet.”

To sustain the dematerialization movement and further protect the planet, McAfee offered three recommendations: Reduce pollution through regulation and tough enforcement; reduce greenhouse gasses using renewable energy, better batteries, climate engineering, lab-grown meat, and nuclear energy; and alleviate global poverty to support dematerialization around the world.

 

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