Sunday, September 14, 2008

Economists and Sustainability

The Journal of Heritage Stewardship had this to say about the position of economists in the environmental/sustainability discussion.
For the most part, however, future concern dwindles in inverse proportion to the pressing demands of the voracious present. (35) Advocates of intergenerational equity are far outnumbered by economists who consider market forces and individual interests adequate guarantors of environmental and social heritage, (36) assume that “future generations are likely to be incomparably richer than people alive today,” (37) and rely on future technological miracles to deal, more cheaply and efficiently than can now be done, with our toxic legacies of nuclear waste, land and air and water pollution, lethal additives, corporate bankruptcies, and state indebtedness. (38)
I would say their summary of the widely held position among economists is fair. Terms like "incomparably rich" and "technological miracles" seem to poke fun at the position. But even the smallest of growth rates--much lower than our current 4%--sustained over a significant period of time result in drastic changes in standards of living. Consider that my great grandparents spent most of their time in a field so that they could eat and I spend less than 1/3 of my (rather low by today's standards, but relatively large in comparison to the past) income on food; and I do not end each day sweaty with a sore back.

Does anyone have a strong reason for why technology might not be so miraculous after all? (I don't believe it is. I would say it is an inevitable outcome. But I am more than willing to admit that my understanding of Schumpeterian entrepreneurship is more faith than fact at this point.)

[HT: Claire]

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