The Long Term

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On the environment, liberals and conservatives make different long-term trade offs.

I happened to listen to this TED talk over the weekend by Paul Gilding dubbed "The Earth Is Full." The short version is: we, as a species, are doomed! Gilding claims that we're outgrowing our environment and will enter an era of "peak everything" with some pretty grim consequences.

Then this morning I read Daniel Bier, who, while not responding directly to Gilding, rebuts his central thesis thusly:

Growth is only limited by our ability to innovate and solve problems, and that is only limited by our access to innovators and problem solvers.

The quixotic effort to quantify the exact amount of resources on earth and calculate when we will “run out” is doomed to fail because people are constantly inventing new ideas and discovering new uses for things. Nothing is a resource until someone discovers an application for it.

These two lines of thought are not actually mutually exclusive. One can believe that we're poised to exhaust economically viable energy sources and modes of agriculture yet still believe that we'll merrily skip along via some technological breakthrough to other modes of energy or agriculture that we can't think of yet. In fact, to have Bier's growth-oriented optimism, you essentially accept Gilding's case that existing resources are eventually going to run dry. One school of thought is worried about that outcome, the other is not.

Still, this and the recent European elections did get me thinking about a curious ideological disconnect. On the one hand, the left (in general) favors Keynesian solutions to economic crises on the basis that sacrificing growth today for balanced budgets in the future is a dangerous trade-off. "In the long term, we're all dead," as Keynes famously quipped. Conservatives, by contrast, are generally willing to embrace austerity and negative growth in the short term for fiscal balance over the long term.

Yet when it comes to the environment, it's the reverse: liberals are more willing to sacrifice short-term economic growth for long-term gain, while conservatives are more concerned with near-term growth than with long-term balance.

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