By James Pethokoukis
If you’re worried humans are “using up all the Earth” or simply have too injurious an environmental footprint to allow more economic growth, then you should be excited by what’s happening with space technology. And that includes the “billionaire space race.” Here’s part of the mission statement of Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ rocket company: “In order to preserve Earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that stress Earth into space.”
Given that, shouldn’t environmentalists and degrowthers be praising Bezos, along with Richard Branson and Elon Musk? They should, but many aren’t. As degrowther and economic anthropologist Jason Hickel tweets: “Billionaires jetting into space for fossil-fuelled joyrides while the planet literally burns is really not a good look.”
The world needs more technological progress and economic growth. Not just to raise living standards and improve economic opportunity in rich countries — as well to deal with global threats both understood and unexpected — but to advance human welfare everywhere. Just one example: A recent analysis by Our World in Data finds that three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet. I look forward to clubs for rich countries, such as the OECD, one day including all countries.
And as soon as possible. We haven’t any time to waste — a notion that’s illustrated by one of my favorite examples, the Green Revolution. Here’s a bit from the Nobel presentation speech given in honor of agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug when he was awarded the 1970 Peace Prize:
The world has been oscillating between fears of two catastrophes — the population explosion and the atom bomb. Both pose a mortal threat. In this intolerable situation, with the menace of doomsday hanging over us, Dr. Borlaug comes onto the stage and cuts the Gordian knot. He has given us a well-founded hope, an alternative of peace and of life — the green revolution.
Borlaug was the primary figure in research leading to high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that have prevented maybe a billion starvation deaths. “To Borlaug, affluence was not the problem but the solution,” writes Charles C. Mann in The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Groundbreaking Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet. “Only by getting richer, smarter, and more knowledgeable can humankind create the science that will resolve our environmental dilemmas. Innovate! Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win!”
But what if the Green Revolution had been delayed? That what-if is explored by Douglas Gollin, Casper Worm Hansen, and Asger Wingender note in their 2021 working paper “Two Blades of Grass: The Impact of the Green Revolution. The researchers find that a “ten-year delay of the Green Revolution would in 2010 have cost 17 percent of GDP/capita and added 223 million people to the developing world population. The cumulative GDP loss would have been US$83 trillion, corresponding to one year of current global GDP.” (The bit on added population stems from the income effect on fertility choices. Richer countries have lower fertility rates than poor ones, just as high-income families have fewer kids than low-income ones.)
I hope one day we don’t have to do a study about how much better life might be if we had accelerated humanity’s use of space, both in Earth orbit and beyond.