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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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