This is one of the messages that have emerged from my series entitled ‘Defining the Greens’.
But I can’t agree.
In the 70s there was some agreement that protecting the planet required fewer people, less wealth and simpler technology – I’m paraphrasing John Tierney from an article in Monday’s New York Times.
But today, according to Mr Tierney, the old wealth-is-bad theory while perhaps making intuitive sense, doesn’t accord with the data. Graphs of environmental impact don’t produce a simple upward-sloping line as countries get richer. The line more often rises, flattens out and then reversed so that it sloped downward, forming the shape of a dome or an inverted U — what’s called a Kuznets curve. (See nytimes.com/tierneylab for an example.)
There are exceptions to the trend, explains Mr Tierney, especially in countries with inept governments and poor systems of property rights, but in general, richer is eventually greener. As incomes go up, people often focus first on cleaning up their drinking water, and then later on air pollutants like sulfur dioxide.
As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources — from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy.
So according to Mr Tierney, “Use energy, get rich and save the planet” – and that’s the title of his article in the NYT.
There are a percentage of environmentalists who agree whole heartedly with this assessment, but for the most part these people would not like to be referred to as ‘Greens’ or ‘Greenies’. Those who have an affinity with the word ‘Green’ tend, to be more of the old school, stuck back in the 1970s and believe preventing serious damage to the environment means less wealth and simpler technology.
Relevant Notes and Links
Use Energy, Get Rich and Save the Planet
By JOHN TIERNEY, Published: April 20, 2009 , The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/science/earth/21tier.html?_r=3&scp=5&sq=John%20Tierney&st=cse
Environmental Kuznets Curves PERC, Yandle, Bhattarai, and Vijayaraghavan
The graph (click on the image for a larger/better view) shows that since 1850, the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy used globally has declined as people around the world move to more carbon-efficient sources of energy http://phe.rockefeller.edu/docs/IsRicherGreener2Dec.pdf
Data sources: IIASA, BP (1965-2001), CDIAC http://cdiac.esd.ornl.gov/trends/emis/em_cont.htm