Course: Sustainable Development and Human Prosperity (2022)
Faculty Mentor: Christine Muller
As his final paper for the Wilmette Institute course Sustainable Development and Human Prosperity, Gerald Bernstein wrote a thoughtful and concise commentary comparing two books. In only a few words he captured their essence. His analysis highlights the importance of truthfulness and ethics. Deliberately ignoring the science and reality of planetary limits results in a utopian world view of unfettered material consumption and economic growth—a prescription for planetary suicide. An ethical world view based on human values considers the well-being of all of humankind including future generations—a foundation for sustainable development.
by Gerald Bernstein
November 14, 2022
I’m curious how authors suggest humanity will manage its transition from what our current global population of 8 billion to the generally accepted forecast of 11 billion persons by year 2100. My motivation is provided by my children and grandchildren, and my desire to find ways to participate in this change; for example, my current effort to keep the public aware of solar energy developments in California. Lately I’ve encountered two books with strongly opposing perceptions of what is needed and what we as individuals are called to do to support this transition. This opinion piece summarizes these sharply distinct outlooks, how I view them, and why the differences are important for shaping our actions.
The first book is “Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, innovation and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Plant” published in August this year; the authors Gale Pooley and Marian Tupy have worked for or on studies for the Cato Institute. The second volume is “Eleven” published in 2014; its author, Paul Hanley, has authored prior books and over 1500 articles on environmental and agricultural themes. I chose Superabundance as an Economist magazine review described it as “brain-stretching, optimistic and humane” which fueled my expectation for a well- documented, positive narrative. Eleven was suggested to me by recent acquaintances.
Before going into specifics, however, I emphasize that a perception of a desired course of action is important as we humans generally seek to reduce dissonance between what we believe and how we act. Which is the chicken and which is the egg in this dualism can be debated, but we should at least be cognizant of the outcome of whichever path we choose. So, what are the paths and perspectives laid-out in these two volumes, how soundly do they support their thesis, and in the end, which do I believe most beneficial?
As I read Superabundance first, I’ll start here. Its analyses are indeed optimistic (as characterized in The Economist review), and with several I fully concur. Pooley and Tupy correctly emphasize the underappreciated benefits of human ingenuity and the overall growth of abundance in human society. From other activity, I’m aware that refrigerators have experienced a 75% reduction in energy use, size increase of 20% and inflation-adjusted cost reduction exceeding 60% over a 35-year period! What’s not to like? I also observe that my pocket-sized cell-phone replaces a lengthy list of single-purpose, material-consuming items that I might purchase, including a telephone, camera, watch, stop watch, travel alarm, pedometer, daily newspaper and stack of maps; this one ingenious device provides a significant reduction in resource demand!
I also concur human society has in many instances experienced growing abundance – defined by the authors as occurring when nominal hourly incomes increase faster than the nominal price of a resource. “Superabundance” is when abundance grows faster than population. (Not more fully explained.) The authors show in detail, comprising the core of the book, how several sets of commodities, food items, and finished goods have become more abundant over a variety of time periods (40 years to 170 years), and across 42 countries. Yes, sugar, bananas and aluminum are more “abundant” (measured by their time price, or the hours of work needed to purchase them). In this sense, we are better-off, and they anticipate this trend with ever-growing consumption to continue to humanity’s benefit.
But the authors’ argument for abundance of services (which comprise over half, and a growing share of the US economy) is much weaker and based solely on data on US Cosmetic Procedures (1998- 2018). I’m surprised that equivalent data couldn’t (or wasn’t) identified for other services, say, college education (as example); or perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, as my calculation from readily available website sources shows this fails the “abundance” test. This highlights one of my two main complaints—cherry-picked data. Another example is the author’s use of a global “Gini Coefficient” to illustrate society is becoming economically more equal. Without explanation of the alternatives, the authors cite one index that supports their case. A study of income equality by the United Nations notes “A priori, there is no single correct concept of inequality that should be utilized.” True, the authors’ measure that population-weighted income data shows a favorable trend, but alternative measures that consider in-country income trends and overall wealth (rather than income) show an unfavorable trend.
My second and more substantive complaint is that they choose to entirely avoid environmental and social issues. The fact that “This book is not about the present state of environmental science, the causes and the extent of global warming, and the precise nature and potential consequences of climatic changes” (despite some not insignificant digressions to disparage selected environmentalists called “extreme”) left me disappointed as I found myself reading only one side of a larger, more complex story of how society might advance to 2100.
The authors argue that religions and many philosophic systems (and movies) are prone to apocalyptic thinking. They favorably quote another author indicating the environmental movement is similarly oriented. It’s unclear, but they seem to suggest that any religion (or movement) concerned about adverse environmental threats is “apocalyptic.” As previously quoted, they state this book is not about the causes and the extent of global warming. Yet without such an assessment of the reality of the problem, how can a perception of it be labeled as “apocalyptic” versus “realistic”? And how do they square this claim with the statements of virtually all major religious groups in support of more action to care for our “common home;” are all religions now “apocalyptic”? (Summaries can be found here on the Interfaith Power and Light website).
In summary, I felt Superabundance was half a story—the favorable half, and one built in-part on cherry- picked examples. The authors chose not to address the other half – the effect of unconstrained consumption on the environment and measures of social well-being—except to disparage them by inuendo.
Eleven strikes-off in an entirely different direction than Superabundance. Paul Hanley establishes that our current growth-focused paradigm is not working for the betterment of humanity or the other species with whom we share this planet. He provides a variety of examples of alternative ways of organizing our communities based on successful trial programs in different world regions that would enable support for 11 billion people.
In the opening chapters the author argues that, when creating our current economic system based on consumption, “it was necessary to jettison once-revered ideals and values such as frugality, moderation, and humility, which interfered with unbridled consumption” and “eschewing saving over spending isclosely identified with American patriotism.” He documents how “the creation of the limits-free consumer society was not an inevitable outcome of civilization. It was and is a deliberate, orchestrated, global campaign to reinvent culture to serve corporate interests…. Putting non-market relationships above commerce makes authentic religion anathema to materialism…. The idea of growth is therefore not only enshrined in business and politics, but also in the psychological structure of the people who grow up in such societies.” And while I cite these observations as brief summaries, they are supported by studies and sources to give them more substance than I have space in this review. In effect, this author is focusing on the adverse effects of consumption and argues reduced consumption is one element of accommodating the almost 50% increase in anticipated population.
To Hanley, a culture able to accommodate 11 billion persons must adopt a posture of learning, create a new cultural narrative, and build a moral capacity to implement the necessary changes. To support this need to build vision and capacity, he cites the grassroots “Ruhi” approach started in Columbian villages in the 1970’s, which has now reportedly expanded to tens of thousands of communities worldwide allowing them to focus on community-enhancing projects, which result in engaged and empowered village populations. His approach is less data-intensive, and built more from examples and narratives such as this.
The author is well informed on agricultural issues; as a result, the core of Eleven tends to focus on success stories arising in the agricultural sector with benefits to the specific community (greater crop productivity and incomes), country (reduced immigration to urban areas), and environment (reduced soil degradation, improved water retention, and increased carbon sequestration). When a population’s main focus is not on consumption, Hanley argues citing numerous sources and examples, it manifests its capacity to build an individual and collective sense of meaning and purpose—that is, exploring that which is sacred. This is a building theme, “People need a sacred narrative” which leads to an orientation of service to humankind. Further, putting his thesis at complete odds with Superabundance, he observes “the next step in human evolution is to fully embrace a global civilization based on a universal recognition of the unity and oneness of humankind.”
He seeks to overcome constraints on local farmers (especially, but not only in the poorest countries where the greatest population growth is expected) that reduce their productivity. He argues benefits of transferring funding going to industrial, first-world carbon capture and sequestration programs and subsidies for fossil fuels to ecological payments to small farmers to reduce poverty and help them adapt the proven strategies he documents. And within first-world countries, he seeks means to reduce today’s 40% of wasted per capita food consumption which would provide sufficient sustenance for 3 billion more persons at current production levels. He asks us to make ethical choices. Quoting late ecologist Stan Rowe, “The landscape of our making match and reflect society’s cultural inscapes.” Our wealth doesn’t create health (he argues), it creates illth. Living in the Anthropocene, ecocentrism needs to take precedence over anthropocentrism—a transformation which requires moral decisions to guide the process: the core of Hanley’s prescription is the efficacy of making these moral and ethical choices. This could sound Pollyanna-like to some, but doubters may find themselves convinced by the evidence.
My original intent to compare the two approaches is frustrated by the fact that Superabundance chooses not to address environmental constraints, nor any other adverse social trend that arises from our consumer culture such as increasing rates of drug addiction, obesity, or homelessness; continued gender discrimination and racial inequality; increased wealth disparity in the United States; or declining life spans in numerous locations. The authors have chosen to focus on one element of recent progress (increase in overall societal wealth), while failing to address all others (particularly those less favorable)—even to the point of disparaging those who would raise them! We clearly need to structure our society and live our lives differently if we expect different outcomes (to re-work an oft-used quote commonly misattributed to Einstein); Eleven points us in this direction with examples, and shows how beneficial changes happen when we put human values (rather than market values) first.
 The Economist, September 17, 2022, pages 73-74