Hottest decade ever. Best decade ever.

Last decade was the hottest on record. It was also arguably the best decade ever from humankind’s standpoint. There’s a clear tension here, but in my last post I uncritically accepted the proposition that the long-term future outlook for the world is generally positive, even if we are setting ourselves up for unnecessary misery from unchecked climate change. In this post, I want to look a little more closely at this seeming paradox.

The argument in favor of a brighter future is pretty simple: in modern history, economies tend to grow; technology to improve; and political stability to spread. And recent history has been even better, bringing a drop in armed conflict and huge reductions in global poverty. Feel free to bet against these trends, but such bets in the past have proved to be bad ones.

That said, in the face of ongoing environmental degradation, several sound criticisms of this rosy view have been raised. A brief and incomplete list:

1. Most of the world’s economic growth has come with the industrial revolution, which just so happens to be the period in which we started burning fossil fuels with real gusto. Maybe the past 200 years are just a giant bubble, foretelling a future of resource shocks and economic retrenchment.
2. The gains of industrialization have been unevenly distributed, and the pain from climate change will be even more so. America is rich, and will probably do OK. Africa and Bangladesh are poor, and may suffer enormously.
3. No one can precisely predict the long-term effects of climate change, nor rule out the possibility of true catastrophe. When that asteroid hit, the dinosaurs probably didn’t spend too much time calculating the effect on GDP.
4. Speaking of GDP, climate change will also have large non-economic impacts that don’t factor into economists’ models. If, as some predict, 40% of the planet’s species go extinct, humanity may very well go happily about its business, but I for one will be kind of sad about how things turned out.

On the other side of the ledger:

Poverty and disease are declining. Although war and political instability are still far too common, the global trend remains encouraging. Americans and Western Europeans are, by a large margin, the wealthiest, freest human beings that have ever existed, and, happily, social progress in the last half century means that this wealth and freedom are shared more equitably than ever before. The view becomes even better when we look outside the richest nations. China alone has recently witnessed the largest migration from extreme poverty in human history. Other poor countries are seeing similar gains in human welfare. By no means am I suggesting that the world is free of problems or that we should become complacent about poverty and injustice. But we should also be honest — and happy! — about the direction of human progress.

I can’t tell you exactly how to weigh these various factors against one another. Although I don’t personally put a ton of faith in the specific predictions that come out of long-term economic forecasts, I do grant that they’re probably right about the future trend in global living standards. There’s no guarantee that the future will be better than the past, but if you had to lay down money, you’d be smart to bet on continued progress. Which is a good thing because, let’s be honest, you are laying down your money every time you get out of bed and go about your daily business under the routine assumption that society isn’t going to collapse in the foreseeable future.

But, like the broken record I am, I’ll also point out that the smart course is to protect the progress we’ve made and guard against future catastrophe by transitioning as quickly as possible away from dirty energy and toward a more sustainable economy. The future may be uncertain, but it’s pretty clear what we ought to be doing now to get ready for it.

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  1. Adam Stein - March 2, 2011

    I didn’t want to muddy up my blog posts with personal blather, but here in comments let me just say, hi everyone! It’s nice to be back as a guest writer. Thank you to TerraPass for having me.
    A bit more substantively, I’d also like to mention something in relation to the above post: I know that people sometimes get annoyed by the contention that the past decade was any good at all, let alone the “best one ever.” After all, recent years have seen a global economic crisis, terrorist attacks, several ongoing wars, middle class wage stagnation, accelerating climate change, etc. All this is true, and I’m not in any way suggesting that the world’s problems have been solved, or that the previous decade was great for everyone, or that we should be complacent about the issues we face. What I am saying is that broad measures of human progress are heavily influenced by large-scale social, political, and economic trends, particularly among the world’s poorest. Those trends, generally speaking, are in the right direction, even if we have much farther to go, and even if the broad trends mask a lot of backwards movement at smaller scales. This is a good thing.
    On another note, I’ll be traveling without access to email when the newsletter is sent out, so I won’t be able to participate in the comment thread here. Which is a bummer. Maybe if people flame me hard enough, I’ll write a follow-up post…

  2. Anonymous - March 4, 2011

    Welcome back to the TerraPass Footprint, Adam.

  3. Jay - March 9, 2011

    Adam, thanks for this interesting and helpful article. For those of us who ponder the future and see daunting challenges, it is valuable to breathe in some of the broader perspectives. So, thanks for that.
    However, climate change seems to be different from the other challenges we face because it is bigger than man and bigger than all of our tools and technologies. A war can be stopped when cooler heads prevail. An economy can be rescued with planning and diligence. Even a plague will run its course and then slowly heal its scars on the population. But the climate seems to be a different story.
    If the climate tips toward the worst case scenarios (as it seems to be doing), it is not something that we will be able to reverse– no matter how much we progress or negotiate or innovate. That horse will have left the barn. I guess that is why those of us who see this storm looming are sort of frantic about it.
    We can only hope that the earth is more resilient than we know. I truly hope that is the case. Maybe there are correcting feedback loops that we can’t even anticipate. That would be wonderful. But if not, and the climate spirals out of control, then man will have finally met the one problem that we cannot correct and mankind will just have to cower and adjust to nature. The frustrating thing will be that we could have mitigated the effects of climate change with some relatively easy steps. Climate change will not be a natural disaster. Volcanoes and earthquakes are natural. And meteors happen. But climate change is our own darned fault. I would feel a whole lot better if mankind was just taking this a lot more seriously.

  4. westomoon - March 9, 2011

    Adam, I hope you’re right in your optimistic outlook.
    Me, I see corporations gathering the last scraps of political power into their hands over much of the globe. As a sequel to that, I see untrammeled exploitation of the planet and its people, at the worst possible time for the survival of our species. I see pure disembodied greed creating, at best, another “bottleneck event” for the human race, and extinction for most other life forms.
    But I hope I’m wrong. I hope you’re right.

  5. Keith - March 10, 2011

    Adam, although I too am relatively optimistic about the immediate future, much of this progress in the betterment of the human condition is largely attributable to the industrial revolution, as you noted, and the industrial revolution is largely attributable to the availability of cheap fossil fuels, courtesy of millions of years of creation within the earth. Yet we humans (especially Americans) have been absolutely gluttonous with this precious resource and in less than 200 years have managed to use up perhaps 50% of the world’s entire supply (less than that of coal, probably more of oil). Solar and wind can help lessen our need, but I doubt they can completely satisfy our need for energy. Therefore, I am quite concerned about the long term prospects for prosperity without the ready availability of fossil fuels.