Is the end of the world wrong

The end of the world does not take place

The richer a society is, the greener it is at the same time. What sounds amazing makes sense. Technology researcher Andrew McAfee shows how human ingenuity has managed to decouple growth from resource consumption and environmental degradation.

If mankind wants to save itself from decline, warns the New York Times, then it must not waste resources and destroy the environment. Biologists predict that up to four fifths of animal species could become extinct within two to three decades. Demographers fear that in thirty years the whole world except Western Europe, North America and Australia will be starving. And a Nobel Prize winner even whispers that if people do not face the problems they have created, civilization is threatened.

Such prophecies can be found again today in all media, only one reveals that they are fifty years old: “In ten years, people in the cities will have to wear gas masks to survive the air pollution”, promised the (now discontinued) magazine “Life ». "By 1985, the exhaust gases mean that only half of the sunlight reaches the earth." The quotes are from the first Earth Day in 1970, when environmentalists conjured up the apocalypse. They can be found in Andrew McAfee's new book, "More From Less".

Malthus is at the beginning ...

The researcher at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts made a name for himself with his studies of how digitization is making its way into the economy. With his colleague Erik Brynjolfsson, he wrote the bestsellers “The Second Machine Age” (2014) and “Machine, Platform, Crowd” (2017). Andrew McAfee is now looking less ahead than he is looking back: he tells “the amazing story of how we learned to prosper with less consumption of resources”.

There is no shortage of prophets of the Apocalypse in world history. The most famous of the modern times is an Anglican pastor: Thomas Robert Malthus, who in 1798 promised death of mankind. In his “Essay on the Principle of Population” he calculated that the population would increase in a geometric progression, i.e. exponentially, but the food base would at most in an arithmetic progression - that would inevitably lead to extinction.

However, within a few decades it became clear that Malthus was wrong. Like most people in the West, the Swiss suffered from the last famine in 1816/17, because a volcanic eruption in Indonesia had darkened the sky around the globe, i.e. had cooled the climate. The pastor in the English province was a convincing analyst. What he observed had dominated life in Western Europe for a millennium: the population grew rapidly after hunger crises and epidemics, until it reached the barely movable limits of its agriculture; then it shrank again due to disease and hardship. But Malthus, like all those who extrapolate exponential curves, failed as a prophet.

Because when he proclaimed the apocalypse, the industrial revolution was just beginning. The steam, generated thanks to coal, also drove growth in agriculture, initially not because machines replaced human or animal labor, but because steam ships brought the valuable fertilizer guano from South America. The steady progress, thanks to which mankind subjugated the earth, ensured that it did not starve, but increased eightfold since the time of Malthus.

... and what came after that

However, as Andrew McAfee complains, the exponential growth of the economy and thus of humanity came at the expense of the environment. Since the 19th century, critics have warned of the limits to growth because of the destruction of nature and the waste of resources. With Earth Day of 1970 and the Club of Rome report of 1972, they startled the world with their dark prophecies. But this time too, the prophets were wrong.

The apocalypse was postponed once more because at the high time of the Warner, as once with Malthus, a new development began that empirically refuted its prophecies. The American economist Julian Simon was one of the first to point this out in 1981: In his book "The Ultimate Resource" he tackled doom prophets such as the butterfly researcher Paul R. Ehrlich, who restored humanity with the bestseller "The Population Bomb" from 1968 once warned against starvation - and despite all falsification warns to this day.

The economist reminded the unanimous seekers of the law of the market economy that the prices of scarce goods rise, which is why demand falls, and above all of mankind's "ultimate resource": their inventiveness, proven for two million years, with which they find solutions Finds all kinds of problems, including replacements for scarce goods. Julian Simon finally challenged Paul R. Ehrlich with the bet that the prices of freely selectable raw materials would not rise between 1980 and 1990. He won, to be sure, only with luck, as the eternal brokers believe; the emergency predicted by the Club of Rome, i.e. the price explosion for raw materials, has never occurred in the last forty years.

Four reasons for optimism

As Andrew McAfee explains, the “four horsemen of the optimists” made sure of that. Firstly, capitalism, which with its price mechanism shows which resources are becoming scarce and which investments are worthwhile, and secondly, it drives innovation. Soft drink suppliers have saved almost nine tenths of the weight of aluminum cans since they were introduced sixty years ago, because every gram less pays off. And so the mobile phone manufacturers are now finding substitutes for the rare earths that they previously absolutely needed because the Chinese dominated this market.

However, Andrew McAfee also knows about the great problem of capitalism: the market does not punish those who overexploit common goods, i.e. pollute the air, land or water, exterminate wild animals or tear the usual bonds of people because they pay the price don't pay yourself. In order to avoid such undesirable developments, thirdly, a public that defends itself is required, and fourthly, a government that cares about people and the environment.

For fifty years, precisely because Earth Day and the Club of Rome conjured up the end of the world, the "four horsemen of the optimist" have been galloping. This led to an amazing development that the ecologist Jesse Ausubel recognized in an article in 2015: “The Return of Nature. How Technology Liberates the Environment ". In the USA, of the 72 important raw materials, only six are consuming not declining. And the farmers need less and less fertilizer, water and land for their steadily growing harvests. That is why they gave the area of ​​the Washington state back to nature in 1985. This development can be seen in most western countries, including Switzerland.

So we create “more from less”; economic growth is decoupled from resource consumption. And this dematerialization continues even faster, thanks to human ingenuity, especially thanks to artificial intelligence, biotechnology and materials science. Andrew McAfee shares the concerns of today's apocalyptists that climate change is a major problem for humankind. But he believes that they can be solved, that life will get better and better for the vast majority of the world's population. He takes bets on that.

Andrew McAfee: More From Less. The surprising story of how we learned to prosper using fewer resources - and what happens next. Simon & Schuster, New York 2019. 304 pp., Fr. 38.90.