2018/09/21: it is impossible to achieve absolute decoupling of resource use from GDP on a global scale, even with rapid efficiency gains and aggressive taxes on resource extraction. This is the conclusion reached by literally every existing study that has been conducted on the matter (you can follow links to the original research here). The reason is simple: the rate of decoupling is outstripped by the normal rate of GDP growth, even in high-efficiency scenarios. To make matters worse, there are physical limits to resource efficiency, and as we approach them the rate of improvement slows down, giving yet more force to the scale effect of GDP growth.
Unlike resource use, GDP can (thankfully) be dramatically decoupled from carbon emissions. But this solves only one dimension of our ecological poly-crisis. Even if we magically switched to a completely clean and renewable energy system tomorrow, we would be no closer to reversing our overshoot of all the other critical planetary boundaries: biodiversity collapse, chemical loading, deforestation, etc.
What are we going to do with all that clean energy? The same things we’re doing with fossil fuels: raze forests, intensify agricultural extraction, produce mountains of stuff, send waste to landfill – and do all of this at an ever-increasing rate, because our economic system is programmed to require endless expansion.
I have never said that poor countries shouldn’t grow – nor has anyone in this field of study (which Noah would know had he read any of the relevant literature). I have simply said that we can’t continue with aggregate global growth. What we need, then, is a fairer distribution of global income, with much more of it going to poor countries (and poor people within rich countries).
Is it politically impossible? Well, it would certainly require a struggle. But it’s far less impossible than Noah’s preferred alternative, namely, to transcend the laws of physics.
the real cause of lower fertility isn’t higher GDP but rather better girls’ education. GDP is a confounding factor.
While poor countries may need some GDP growth, that should never – for any nation, rich or poor – be the objective as such. The objective should be to improve human well-being: better health, better education, better housing, happiness, etc.
there is no evidence that relying on a switch to services, in and of itself, reduces the material throughput of the global economy.
2018/09/19: our social lives are shaped by a much stronger force that ignores many of these lines: distance.
In the millions of ties on Facebook that connect relatives, co-workers, classmates and friends, Americans are far more likely to know people nearby than in distant communities that share their politics or mirror their demographics.
The power of distance underlying these other patterns can be seen another way: If we were to divide the United States into two regions, merging counties that are most closely connected to one another, we would get a very simple map. It would not show the coasts versus the heartland, or red America versus blue America.
It would show, simply, all of the continental U.S. and Alaska in one region, and far-off Hawaii in the other. Divide the country further, and cohesive regions become clear at different scales. Northern Florida merges with southern Georgia. Texas and California splinter. Divide the country into 50 regions, and you get something that looks like how we might redraw our state borders to reflect the social worlds people in America inhabit today.
These networks are important in part because of other patterns that are correlated with them. Counties with more dispersed networks — where a smaller share of Facebook friends are located nearby, or among the nearest 50 million people — are on average richer, more educated and have longer life expectancies. Places that are more closely connected to one another also have more migration, trade and patent citations between them.
Counties that are more geographically isolated in the index are more likely to have lower labor force participation and economic mobility, and they have higher rates of teenage births. Some of the most economically distressed parts of the country appear to be the most disconnected.
Close-knit communities can have their own benefits, like enabling neighbors to rely on one another for economic and social support. But previous research suggests that “weak ties” to people we know less well can be particularly valuable for bringing us information we don’t already have. So people in communities that are more broadly connected may be more likely to hear about a wider range of business or educational opportunities.
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