Good News For Gloomy Greens
Published on: April 9, 2010
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  • Norm

    Incremental, market-based solutions sounds down-right Republican, but Dr. Mead also recommends zoning and infrastructure improvements that would warm the cockles of a Democrat’s heart.

    More seriously, the one item that Dr. Mead misses near the end is the emphasis on carbon rather than energy in terms of economic output. In an agricultural economy, a dollar of output required “X” amount of energy where you are burning wood and using horses as prime movers. In the industrial economy, that dollar of output is coming from “10 X” energy as we burn coal, transport goods across the world in steel ships, or use internal combustion engines for planes, trains, and automobiles. In our post-industrial economy energy is going up again to “100 X”. This might seem counter-intuitive but moving that data around depends on an infrastructure of computers and semiconductors that take a lot of energy to create in the first place. Also, since electricity is used to encode the data we have a basic extraction problem that there are efficiency losses in going from a raw Joule of energy that is locked in a ton of coal, a million cubic feet of natural gas, or a kilogram of uranium to the carefully controlled and well-behaved Kilowatts of uninterrupted electricity that cool and power the server farms that keep the web working.

    A richer society needs more energy. A century ago, people worried about choking on horse dung, but cars solved that. Now we worry about choking on carbon dioxide but nuclear power (among several other alternative sources of power) could solve that. A century from now our posterity will find itself beset by the adverse fall-out of whatever looks like the best choice today, and they will solve that problem in turn.

    The late Julian Simon argued that material commodities (oil, aluminum, bread, etc.) tend to decline in price over time. He agreed with Dr. Mead’s thesis that human ingenuity would use periodic crises where commodity prices would spike as opportunities to identify superior substitutes and then broadcast and penetration of those substitutes would lead to the resumption of price reduction in the commodity. This anti-Malthusian behavior has ultimately overcome each Malthusian challenge that we have faced.

  • Peter

    Mr. Mead,

    Your premise in this posting is wrong.

    Economically speaking, technological advances that increases the efficiency of a resource’s use tend to increase, not decrease, the consumption of that resource.

    History shows that if you reduces the cost of material & energy inputs per unit of output, which is, as you say, the goal of technology, then you will end up increasing the consumption of that output.

    Or to put it another way, improvements in energy efficiency leads to increase energy usage. Fact.

    This is Jevons paradox.

    And by the way, Mr. Mead, most people would not welcome the opportunity to drive less, not in America and surely not throughout the world when you consider the hundreds of millions of people in India, China, etc. who would kill to to get their hands on a car.

  • Luke Lea

    Are you old enough to remember Amory Lovins’s concept of “soft energy paths”? His idea was that what we are after is not consumption per se but rather the satisfaction of human needs, and that the more efficiently we can satisfy a given set of needs (in terms of human effort, energy, and material resources) the better.

    Extending his idea someone proposed we build new towns in the countryside in which people work three days a week and in their spare time help make their own houses, cultivate gardens, and spend more time with their families. Where are the efficiencies you ask?

    Well, most obviously, there would be many fewer trips to and from work and the distances to work and to shop would be much shorter. And they could use slow speed electric vehicles like golf carts to get around town.

    Also they would no longer have to work so many extra hours to pay for childcare or eating out at MacDonalds. And if work and leisure were integrated into the fabric of everyday life they would not have to retire so early, which means they would not need to build up as big a nest egg.

    They might not save a lot of money on food, but home grown tomatoes sure taste a lot better than the ones you buy in the store. Quality counts a lot in the enjoyment of eating, as does time spent with the family.

    If parents and grandparents lived closer together the older generation might not have to go into nursing homes. That’s a lot of $$$.

    You can save a ton of money when you build your own house, or even when you do your own cleaning and repairs.

    We need to look for the soft path, not to be good, but to be happier!

  • Neville

    The problem for the ‘Greens’ is that the future you describe, which is a continuation of the technological record of the twentieth century, has no particular need for the Greens themselves, nor does it accord them the special role and the revered status they feel ought to go with it.

    At bottom, the Green movement is a desperate quest for social status by people who are often prepared to shoulder aside the interests of anyone who gets in their way, particularly poor people in third world countries, children or both. If you live in a poor country today, the Greens are your contemporary equivalent of medieval Viking or Muslim raiders.

  • john

    The term “Malthusian” is being thrown around here quite wildly. I’m not sure that users of the term quite understand what it meant and how the Malthusian trap is relevant in world history. It wasn’t about “stupid peasants.” The definitive explanation is provided in Gregory Clark’s indispensible A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Prof. Mead and the readers/commenters here could benefit from the information contained in Clark’s book.

  • phil g

    We don’t have a ‘man made global climate problem’, never have and probably never will.

    What we do have are a bunch of man made local and regional polution problems and limited safe drinking water in much of the world. Those are the problems and the underlying causes that we should focus on, not some bogus abstract ‘global climate change’. But I guess that meme has been so successfully implanted in everyone’s conscious that it is just accepted fact.

  • sara

    I have a suggestion. what about efforts to improve our mind capacity for telepathy ? It’s a good and efficient way. We could contact our boss and colleagues without devoting a lot of time to commute or checking mails?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      A great idea, but there are some drawbacks. What if our bosses use telepathy on us to know what we are thinking about them? A wave of mass layoffs would surely sweep through the economy and a new great depression would ensue. This would certainly reduce carbon emissions at least in the short term, but I have to believe there are cheaper ways of getting to the goal.

  • guanxi

    Mr. Mead is describing basic micro-economics: People will seek to maximize the return on their investment by, among other things, reducing energy costs. That creates demand for innovations that, among other things, reduce energy consumption. I agree completely.

    That is page one in the microeconomics textbook; page two explains why that won’t impact greenhouse gasses: The fact that their energy use creates greenhouse gasses which warm the climate does not appear on the consumers’ energy bill, thus they will not seek to reduce their usage. For example, they won’t switch to an electric car or from coal power plants to nuclear power plants.

    Such consequences that don’t impact costs — and thus don’t impact behavior — are called “Externalities”. I’m sure Mr. Mead is familiar with the concept of externalities, so I don’t understand how his detailed analysis can omit this issue.

    There is a well-established, simple solution: Put a price on the ‘externality’, so individuals include their cost in their decision making. For example, if coal costs more, consumers have an incentive to switch to nuclear. That’s the objective of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and similar policies. By putting a price on the externality, you put the decision-making in consumers’ hands rather than the government’s, and you unleash the ‘parallel’ creative power that Mr. Mead rightly identifies as the source of great innovation,

    I’m late to the discussion, but I would be interested in Mr. Mead’s thoughts.

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