Latest response to Tim Jackson

by Daniel Ben-Ami

Originally published at http://danielbenami.com/ on 30 November 2010

This is the latest post in my ongoing debate with Tim Jackson.

Tim Jackson and I seem destined to live in a state of mutual puzzlement judging by his latest blog post. He frequently misrepresents or misunderstands my arguments. I have no doubt about his sincerity so I do not see such actions as deliberate. To me they are symptomatic of the narrowness of imagination inherent in green thinking.

Contrary to Tim’s assertion I have consistently argued against the notion that development should be defined as simply reducing extreme poverty. To me that is one of the greatest failings of the contemporary development consensus. It focuses on slightly mitigating the worst excesses of poverty rather than attempting anything more ambitious.

My alternative is economic transformation. That is transforming the entire non-developed world to a state where it is at least as rich as we currently are in the West. That is a key reason I use the term “Ferraris for All”. Such a goal can only be achieved with strong economic growth.

Tim says he also wants everyone to be equally prosperous but this should happen without growth – certainly in the West. The only way to square this circle is by slashing incomes in the West and by limiting the amount by which the incomes of the poor can rise. Tim is entitled to argue that such a move is consistent with “prosperity”, by his peculiar non-economic definition, but he should spell out what it means to his readers. I suspect many of them might countenance lower incomes for others but they are unlikely to accept it for themselves.

In relation to my argument on overcoming limits Tim certainly does fail to take it up. The main point of my speech at our debate at the Battle of Ideas, available here, was to show how humans are not constrained by limited resources. Nothing Tim has said in his blog posts counters the arguments I made then.

As a scientist he should know that the second law of thermodynamics (essentially that energy is finite) does not hold in relation to the earth. That is because the earth does not meet a basic condition on which the law is premised: it is not a closed system. It is bombarded by huge amounts of solar radiation (itself a form of energy) every minute of every day.

Even if available energy were limited, which I do not accept, Tim would have to go much further to prove his case. As a general statement it would be true if there were just two people on the planet or if there were, say, 200 million. To win the argument he would have to show conclusively that, despite all the plentiful forms of energy in the world, we are approaching those limits with our present levels of consumption.

Nor do I claim that Thomas Malthus, or the proponents of the Limits to Growth, simply got their numbers wrong. My argument is that their method is flawed. Essentially they look at humans in a grossly one-sided way: they are viewed primarily as consumers rather than producers. Thus Malthus correctly saw demand for food would increase but failed to appreciate that supply could increase by much more. That is why Malthus, the authors of the Limits to Growth and every other green have appalling records on their predictions of doom. Typically they predict apocalypse one day and then move the goalposts when their prophesies fail to materialise.

What greens fail to understand is not just technology but the capacity of humans through social interaction to overcome the challenges they face. It is not simply a question of devising ingenious gadgets. On the contrary, it is about the level of cultural, economic and social development of society as a whole.

Finally, Tim makes some basic and uncharacteristic factual errors in relation to population. Population does not grow exponentially (2, 4, 8, 16 etc). The United Nations’ Population Challenges and Development Goals (2005) (PDF) estimates that: “The world population growth rate has fallen from its peak of 2 per cent per year in the late 1960s to 1.2 per cent today” (p6). In its medium variant projection the UN also assumes that fertility in less developed regions is likely to continue to decline (p5). It is not possible to be certain about the future but the UN suggests that global population could stabilise at about nine billion by mid-century (p29).

In any case the key question is not the number of people on the planet but of developing the right outlook to enable humanity to overcome the challenges it faces. This will necessitate increasing our impact on the natural world rather than reducing it. To enable us to reshape nature to create a better environment for humans to live in. Achieving this vital objective means overcoming the blinkered dogma of green thinking.

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