Last week I made a post criticizing Robin Hanson’s view of ecology, essentially saying that he was too optimistic about man’s ability to produce optimal outcomes via technological changes. I argued that long term growth requires putting on some of the stops because we need nature more than it needs us. Hanson himself responded in the comments section, reaffirming his view that species which cannot remain competitive are lost causes.
I’m not sure if Hanson is continuing our discussion in this post in Overcoming Bias today, but he reaffirms this position, extending it pretty much all of nature:
Yes, nature would be saved if we destroy ourselves without destroying nature in the process, but hopefully we’ll avoid this scenario. We might also somehow coordinate to prevent competitive growth. For example, we might empower a world government to protect nature, prevent innovation, or prevent population growth. But I honestly see little prospect of this. We now live in a very competitive world, and even governments mainly just redirect competition, toward controlling those governments.
I find it a little odd that he would say this. It contains elements of truth… at what point will governments stop promoting ecological conservationism at the cost of economic competitiveness?
But I think he misses another element. I don’t think it will escape the attention of capitalist that they rely on the earth for natural resources and that technological advanced will decrease, not increase, our reliance and impact on nature and not the other way around.
People have been falsely predicting that we’ve reached the earth’s carrying capacity for centuries, and they’ve all been wrong. This is not because of government incentives (well, not totally) but because of market forces.
I think Hanson’s assumption of continuing population growth is also incorrect. As economic competition produces wealth throughout the globe, population levels will steady out without having to approach the earth’s physical limits. Add the technology of lessening out eco footprints and I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.
Hanson is being alarmist – some will say economic growth needs to happen anyway, so government interventions are just delaying, and worsening, the inevitable, while others will say that we need to stop “progress” to protect the natural rights of mother earth.
As an economist, I find it odd that Hanson would imply that population will keep growing but technology will reach a limit.
I find it much more likely that, in astronomical time, the human population will dwindle out into nothing because we no longer feel the drive to reproduce than we’ll reach the physical carrying capacity of the entire universe.