Worldly wealth: Michael Lind

Michael Lind writes a piece in Prospect concerning how the earth will cope with the projected peak population of 9 billion people. This somewhat relates to recent debate on the amount of oil left on the planet. Lind gives some interesting stats including:

As the economist Paul Romer pointed out in the magazine Reason (December 2001) US per capita income in 2000 was around $36,000. If real income per American grew by 1.8 per cent per year, by 2050 it would increase to $88,000 (in purchasing power of 2000 dollars), while 2.3 per cent annual growth would increase the average American’s income to roughly $113,000 per year. Romer observed that in the second scenario, “in 50 years we can get extra income per person equal to what in 1984 it had taken us all of human history to achieve.”


As machines get ever cheaper, more people will be able to afford more of them. Today the combined mass of all machines, at more than a gigaton (Gt), exceeds the combined mass of human beings, about 1 megaton. The total amount of carbon, 5Gt, required to power and construct machines and electric utilities greatly exceeds the 1.3Gt global consumption of carbon by human beings, mostly in the form of food. As affluence grows, the amount of energy and raw materials “consumed” by machinery will escalate even more rapidly than human consumption. But this need not mean an end to the machine age. If manufacturing processes were to imitate the recycling that takes place in the biosphere, then most machine materials might be recycled to make new machines, rather than thrown away. And long before all fossil fuels were exhausted, their rising prices would compel industrial society not only to become more energy efficient but also to find alternative energy sources sufficient for the demands of an advanced technological civilisation – nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, solar energy, chemical photosynthesis, geothermal, biomass or some yet unknown source of energy.

He concludes:

Providing stuff, space and speed to 9bn people without putting serious strains on the global environment is possible, but not inevitable. A planet of crowded slums, extreme inequality, devastated ecosystems and rising atmospheric temperatures is a frightening possibility. To avert such a future, campaigns for political and behavioural reform, at both the national and international level, will be necessary to supplement the development of new technology – no argument there. But political and moral campaigns should take the preferences of people into account and they should be based on sound reasoning. It makes no sense to counsel individuals and nations to adopt austerity in cases in which there are technological solutions to problems created by technology. Sometimes there really are technical fixes.

Oh and by the way, Lind is the Whitehead senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC






5 responses to “Worldly wealth: Michael Lind”

  1. Peter Nolan avatar

    I read the article – I wouldn’t take him too seriously. According to his bio, it seems he’s a journalist, with no publications in anything more rigorous than New Left Review.

    Paul Krugman filleted him quite effectively
    in Slate:

    and in this speech:

    The fact is, he knows squat about the science and the serious social issues he squirts around like some Jackson Pollock of the printed page.

    “…campaigns for political and behavioural reform, at both the national and international level, will be necessary to supplement the development of new technology – no argument there.”

    Bullshit. Our good old friend homo economicus won’t change his energy systems one iota except through the profit motive and welfare maximisation, and that may not be sufficient to drive conversion from carbon fuels. Anything a self-regarding magazine for those who like to play at being deep-thinkers isn’t likely to have much effect on the issue.

    As for meat from test tubes, flying atomic cars and domestic robots, this is real Clintonology, scientific and economic aromatherapy instead of real knowledge. Phhww!

  2. Gavin avatar

    It was James Galbraith and Paul Krugman you quote.

    Nevertheless it is thought provoking, even with Krugmans criticism of the ‘young’ Lind.

  3. Peter Nolan avatar

    As a more general point, I think this shows both the weakness of the intellectuals’ tabloids like Foreign Affairs, Prospect and Harpers and many of the think tanks that work hard to feed them. A big scarlet theme running through Paul Krugman’s writing, especially “Peddling Prosperity” and “Pop Internationalism” is his distaste for these brain-barns on the right and left respectively who let themselves be the vehicles for poorly-digested, ideologically-driven thinking. I do support the IEA in London, Open Republic in Dublin precisely because they don’t tend to indulge in this.

  4. Peter Nolan avatar

    Gav, haven’t you finished “Rubicon” yet?

    On oil –

    Someday, I might actually make a positive and welcoming comment on one of your links.

    Today has been a VERY bad day!

  5. Peter Nolan avatar

    On the general point of sustainability, William Nordhaus papers on the future of economic growth and the Club of Rome “Limits to Growth” studies.