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A new book asserts that rich countries grow with lighter environmental impacts (technologyreview.com)
94 points by quickfox 65 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

This is also called the Environmental Kuznets Curve (1991) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuznets_curve#Environmental_Ku... .

There's a lot of criticism in the literature. The statistics rarely live up to the theory at face value. (https://steadystate.org/wp-content/uploads/Stern_KuznetsCurv...). And often, new pollutants emerge in rich countries as others decline.

For example, in the USA, water pollutants targeted by the Clean Water Act (1972) have declined, but new pollutants have emerged which aren't measured or managed by the policy. Recent years have seen an explosion in estrogen hormones that turn male fish to hermaphrodites that lay eggs, coming from unchecked fertilizer runoff and birth control sewage. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/02/160203-femin...

> The researchers found intersex smallmouth bass everywhere they looked. About 85 percent of the males collected in the refuges were intersex. At least some males at every site had female egg cells. It was less prevalent in largemouth bass—about 27 percent.

Wow that's the vast majority, sounds like it could be a serious issue. What's interesting is how it's been found near cities and Agriculture but also in remote areas.

I'm curious how much of a role the waste treatment centers have played which was noted as a potential source.

Since water can travel long distances via rivers and rain its going to be hard to pinpoint who or what is to blame. Hopefully they keep digging into that question.

I also now understand what Alex Jones meant by "gay fish" in one of his popular rants he was mocked for.

> What's interesting is how it's been found near cities and Agriculture but also in remote areas. I'm curious how much of a role the waste treatment centers have played which was noted as a potential source.

There are generally two main sources. 1. agricultural runoff related to fertilizers. 2. Urban sewage, because birth control products get flushed down toilets and the wastewater treatment plants don't even try to filter for hormones (it's not part of the Clean Water Act). And even if they tried, the methods to do so are nascent (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/06/19/4153363...).

> I also now understand what Alex Jones meant by "gay fish" in one of his popular rants he was mocked for.

Yes, he got unfair criticism for calling attention to this -- it is actually a huge environmental problem that needs more public awareness. The ecological impacts are huge, and yes because the water treatment plants don't filter, you might be drinking similar concentrations through tap water. (edit: to be clear, the concentrations that harm fish are nowhere near enough to cause the same level of harm in humans, so no you will not turn gay from drinking tap water)

He's still a nutcase con man though, IMO. Mixing in a few grains of truth makes the poisonous ideas go down smoother.

All charlatans mix truth with falsehoods.

Alex Jones knows exactly what he's doing with his character. Anyway yeah the lack of treatment options sounds like a big roadblock.

It seems people can find any fertilizer that doesn't harm the environment somehow either, whatever is being used has already had to jump through a hundred hoops first :/

Scott Alexander wrote a post [1] about how this was a serious ecological concern, but because Alex Jones picked it up (and augmented it with some wacky government-conspiracy stuff) it became impossible to raise awareness for it without sounding like a nut.

[1] https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/02/04/respectability-cascade...

Love Star codex. It's the best science/rationality blog! Never read a bad article on it.

It brings this up in the article, but I have a very difficult time believing this isn't just because rich countries have shifted manufacturing and mining to poor countries. Look at recycling. We all thought we were so environmentally aware by recycling, but turns out so much "recycling" was just "ship to poor countries to deal with the fallout".

Where do you draw the line?

How about Thailand or Malaysia (as an example)? They are both fairly developed and hoping to avoid middle income trap and become developed countries within few years. In both countries disregard for enviroment and citizens health is just sad. Toxic haze, toxic water, pollution, trash.

When is the moment that a country decides that it is rich enough and it is time to clean its act?






> In both countries disregard for enviroment and citizens health is just sad. Toxic haze, toxic water, pollution, trash.

That was trash that was illegally dumped there by UK, Australia, and other Western countries, right after China stopped accepting Western trash. https://asklegal.my/p/waste-dumping-malaysia-canada-pollutio...

You use a strong sentence "disregard for environment". What facts lead you say that? Wouldn't the behavior of the Western countries shipping trash over to poorer countries indicate a much stronger disregard for the environment? Or are you implying the environment/nature can be split into one that is local to Western countries and another that is present in developing/poorer countries?

I don't think dumping is really the right word here. As it says in the article, importers are illegally accepting the waste and making a good chunk of money from it. The private companies who are disposing of waste from Western countries are happy to pay these guys to get rid of it. Still they could try to check what happens to the waste, rather than just turning a blind eye. But when the mafia can dump nuclear waste in your own back yard, I guess it's hard to see what happens on the other side of the world to some plastic bottles...


>Where do you draw the line?

You don't. You account for those externalities all the way (until they become small enough so that further breakdown does not matter).

>When is the moment that a country decides that it is rich enough and it is time to clean its act?

If by cleaning you mean "moving it somewhere else" then it doesn't matter.

This is correct, the vague measure of how many people and how much pollution does a country produce is not very good. It's really about how much a country consumes and the resulting worldwide pollution.

Interestingly, there's currently a big debate in the UK about including imported goods in its carbon statistics and for its zero-carbon goals.

This is one of the many intersections between capitalism and imperialism. Marx said that capitalism would destroy itself when the rate of profit declined as it extracted too much from the working class. However, all the bourgeoisie economists claim Marx was wrong despite this simple and compelling model. After all, the rate of profit didn't decline. How did they (the capitalists) do it?

They did it by expanding markets constantly, invading third world countries to "liberate" their labor forces, synthesizing want via advertising, and many other means.

Now that we are in a globalized economy, we are running out of new markets and cash is just sloshing around. The capitalist class has slashed away as best they can at the welfare state, reducing the possibility of radical redistribution that could right the ship. Maybe now Marx's prediction will have a chance to come true.

And literally export all their garbage to China.

This practice has just been outlawed in Australia, which is great news. I’d willingly pay more for recycling to be done here.

I believe the post your were responding too just used recycling as an example.

A different example: Australia could have a tech industry that didn't pollute (assuming the power weren't coming from brown coal :-( ). But all the hardware designed in AUS could be built in a highly polluting way in China. That would be essentially exporting the pollution.

I don't know the fix, just pointing out the topic at hand. Australia's record on pollution is horrific, especially when you consider how little of our continent is actually habitable.

This happened before poor countries had any manufacturing.

Wasn’t rich countries also forcefully deprived the wealth of the developing countries before the inception the great development?

Makes sense: when a country has an industrial revolution it just wants to grow fast.

Then when the extreme growth part passes it starts to stabilize: this is when the country & the people start doing well enough so that they can look at other issues (environmental impact) without having to sacrifice their livelihoods.

The human will always prioritize his own and his families livelihood. Only once that is stable can one afford to look at the impact.

If you're poor and can hardly afford basic stuff for your children you obviously won't care about the environment, it's last thing on your mind.

And if anyone writes "yeah but even poor people should care": no, that is not how human nature works. First you & your family, only then everything else.

This is exactly what I think of when I see hopefuls talking about climate change, among other topics. The guy who doesn't have enough money for rent? He's not buying the expensive free range eggs.

If I were in a developing country, I would be worried that climate accords become a other way for those on top to stay there.

> The guy who doesn't have enough money for rent? He's not buying the expensive free range eggs.

I suppose you were just providing a random example, but if you're curious the production of free-range eggs almost certainly pollutes more carbon than caged eggs [1] while being less ethically sound (assuming that was the consideration for cage-free), environmentally responsible, and typically more expensive than plant alternatives.

[1] https://www.smh.com.au/national/free-range-hens-boost-carbon...

What's the ethical concern of free-range?

Also, the report you cited was the (conventional) egg industry researching itself, not an independent study.

That's okay, because I use about 50% fewer eggs when I buy free range. They're more than twice as expensive. So while the per-egg carbon cost is 20% higher my total carbon usage for eggs will have dropped significantly as a result of switching.

Except that's a false dichotomy. The hypothetical guy you're talking about is almost certainly the one whose family is gonna be negatively affected the most by climate change.

And this isn't in some hypothetical future. It's already happening.

> that is not how human nature works.

Please add should, this should not be how human nature works.

Also, one capitalist cannot on the one hand free will is the key for prosperity, and at he same time ask others to think beyond others’ basic life needs while suffering.

I recently finished Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker and this exact point was made in that book. I'll paraphrase a salient quote from the book: poverty is the greatest polluter.

Intuitively this makes great sense: when you're eking out a subsistence living you're not going to care about the environment, but when resources are plenty you can afford to consider other living things too.

That's just not true. The US emits 16 tons of CO2 per capita. For many African countries, that number is 1-2.


The greatest polluter is everybody living in large single family homes full of things manufactured on other continents, with AC, multiple cars, eating red meat every day.

The greatest polluter is the economy where the only profitable business model is planned depreciation to make people buy new stuff. Nobody makes durable razors because it's a financial suicide. Nobody makes reliable cars, laptops, toothbrushes. People don't have a choice but to keep replacing things that break. Manufacturing these things wastes oil, coal and pollutes the environment. The businesses don't care because disposing the junk is not their problem. Change rules to make businesses accountable for stuff they sell: the recycling facility needs to do something with a mountain of broken fridges? Let it send an invoice to manufacturer. Many companies will go bankrupt. We'll see how reliable things replace the junk. The economy will slow down because people won't need to spend so much. There won't be much progress either if you drive the grandfathered car: no money for R&D, so engineers become repairmen. No more demand for STEM because the market for making new things is tiny. The big tech will collapse because its paid by ads and there will be nothing to advertise. Stagnation, deflation, unemployment, good stamps. As you see, the solution exists and it's called stagnation. TBH, I'm not sure if it's bad because currently the world is rapidly consolidating 99% of resources in the 1% people s hands (and make no mistake, they will survive any global warming that may come). P.S. Single family houses aren't the problem. They actually store CO2 in the form of wood, which is an easily replaceble resource. If houses were built from aluminium, I'd agree with you, but they are made from wood in the US.

I actually disagree that we'd no longer perform R&D or build new things. Rather, there would be a significant increase in retrofits to existing equipment. For example even cars from 30 years ago used standard DIN slots with DIN rails to mount their stereo equipment. You could easily build something to replace that equipment and retrofit in-dash GPS. And replacing the HVAC and retrofitting AC onto old engines is also possible by modifying the serpentine belt routing and cutting holes in the firewall.

Almost certainly what would happen is manufacturers would build more robust things and there would be more "ships of theseus" where you're running a 30-year old cabinet but with modern materials and components. People would generally have to be more technical and develop more one-off solutions.

That's nonsense: you have to look at the whole economy as an ecology of different waste streams.

The $X money you saved on non-disposable goods would instead be $Y spent on consumable goods (e.g. some wine or steak - both near 100% "pollution") or $Z spend on services (e.g. travel - near 100% pollution too) or other permanent goods $U (an expensive jacket that could last 300 years except it got thrown out because it looks ugly and smells of Uncle Jack).

If you want to save the world, you need to directly do something that saves it e.g. protect some native forest, or buy some farm land and let it revert to wilderness.

Anything else where you are participating in the economy is virtually guaranteed to have a high degree of waste (buy some eco-friendly meat, but 50% is retail markup, and the the hippy producer uses the money on a "wasteful" overseas holiday).

Very few people calculate the total ecological footprint of their actions: e.g. buying an electric car can easily be far worse for the planet (depending on cost, location, usage, and other factors).

Permanent goods cost more, so there will be less money for travel and food. If your point is that in the long run permanent goods cost less and people will have more disposable income, then I can't agree with that. Who's going to pay that income? Companies that no longer have money?

Asking people to do something for the greater good won't lead you anywhere. People are driven by greed that capitalism wisely directs into something productive. This powerful stream of greed won't disappear anywhere, but it's possible to redirect it somewhere else.

"The greatest polluter is the economy where the only profitable business model is planned depreciation to make people buy new stuff."

Cite please, or is this just your opinion?

Regarding houses: I was referring more to the size of the housing than its materials. Larger housing correlates directly with higher energy use, probably in the form of heating and air conditioning.

That's both untrue and ethically disgusting, by pretending that some poor people toiling in some remote countries, using no pesticide and no machinery, eating mostly rice or yam, harm the planet more than MIT professors flying around the world from conference to conference with their macbooks under their arm. This is so wrong...

The MIT professor is a lot more productive though - per unit of production he pollutes a fraction of what a poor farmer does.

The ratio doesn't count for the planet. Only the total impact. Having "less impact per unit of resource" doesn't help when resources are exhausted.

This seems to contradict the simple observation that, by and large, the poorer a country the more biodiversity it has.

Not necessarily- a poor country with high biodiversity or other natural resources are a known phenomenon [0]. Also, another known issue is that the most polluted rivers are often from developing countries, partially because developed countries are sending their trash there.


Resource curse is an interesting phenomenon, but I think biodiversity (~ the healthiness/robustness of the remaining natural environment) and e.g. the amount of accessible oil/gas a country has are fundamentally different aspects.

Pinker is an over-the-top neoliberal who specializes in motivated reasoning.

Simple Maslow is all this is.

Developing nations can follow-suit, by outsourcing their own pollution intensive activities to ... developing countries?

> rich countries have figured out how to grow with lighter environmental impacts—and developing nations can follow suit

How does that reconcile with the actual (admittedly outdated) facts? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_ratio_of_...

He is looking at carbon efficiency - emissions divided by GDP. On top of that, he's looking at the change in efficiency rather than the actual efficiency, thus he can boast that the US is increasingly efficient, instead of noting it is already very inefficient.

Of course, the planet is based on physics and doesn't understand GDP, so this is all in a wider sense irrelevant.

> the planet is based on physics and doesn't understand GDP, so this is all in a wider sense irrelevant



economics (GDP) would be to the far left (or between sociology and math if we're on S^1), so if efficiency became a part of the exchange rate or tax on goods, it would become immediately understandable by planet.

I like BTW, the suggestion that the planet's understanding things. I can imagine she feels rather itchy these days.

Ignoring all the cost reaching to current state. Isn't this what we call fake news?

Maybe propaganda is a beer name, as this is not really news just a twisted storyt that serves certain interests.

This is all fine and reassuring and soothing, but the fact is that we need to entirely decorrelate economic output from resource usage, and that just doesn't happen, nor is there any way to make it happen, even in theory. This sounds for me like a call to wishful thinking, something like "we can go on like we always did, we won't crash and collapse but will find a way out".

Basically, a propaganda piece for neoliberal capitalism which is driving us into the ground fast. Borderline criminal, maybe.

Assertion pretty obvious, non? (Of course a knowledge-based economy is going to pollute less than an industrial- and/or resource-driven one.)

Then the first line of the author's thesis (more capitalism needed) doesn't follow from the premise:

As China and Sweden demonstrate, advanced economies need not necessarily be strictly capitalist.

I think another attribute of this is education and being aware that there is slightly more to life than just the pursuit of money. Sure, people with means fall for this all the time, but I think poor people also commonly enter the same trap. Note that a pursuit of saving face and appearing rich is entirely different than the pursuit of wealth - but a pursuit of money could take either path.

For instance, understanding why burning down a rain-forest to make $100 might not be worthwhile, akin to uber drivers endangering drivers and pedestrians to make $15.

Sometimes developed western countries seem to have sympathy for people who are willing to deforest African nations (whom are also usually helpless to act against these transgressions) and poach endangered animals (an obvious heinous act) and oddly sometimes progressives will state that it's less-bad because they're poor / uneducated...

I'd argue that this is a huge issue in the Western world that we could theoretically solve, though how it would happen practically I'm not sure.

Stable homes for all, reduce and/or eliminate the worst forms of advertising.

With some luck you then have a relatively happy populace, content to spend time with their family and on leisure etc without wanting to get big 4x4s or jet around the world or whatever. Kill off the rat race.

Quite incompatible with our current economy though...

I don't necessarily have a problem with people being motivated and as a result of their efforts making money - moreso that most people seem to be motivated just to save face and "show" others how rich they are (mostly a media driven idea). I think these kinds of narratives harm poor people more since they are inclined to make horrible financial choices to be like these "rich" people, who in reality are probably in nearly just as much debt as actual poor people.

I think the most interesting thought experiment here is when you consider extremist progressives who want to "kill the rich and elite" - in reality if this actually did play out I think they'd just end up killing people who are most evidently "rich" but not actually withholding wealth from the poor. In essence, they'd be killing all the self-obsessed and narcissistic consumerists. Anyone who was actually rich or still in control of banking infrastructure would be smart enough to not be showy. (yes, I understand this is a pretty extreme tangent)

All in all, I do think the rat race is empowering to people who are able to understand what is really valuable to them.

Not only incompatible with the economy. What you describe is likely to require an authoritarian system.

Now do it in consumption growth adjusted for marginal utility of the growth.

Modern, rich countries externalize their polution-causing activities to developing nations.

> The book... says there are four main forces... that enable decoupling in mature economies:

> * the efficiencies driven by capitalism

> * technological progress that has allowed us to “dematerialize” our consumption (by, for instance, cramming atlases, compasses, calculators, recorders, cameras, stereos, and other gadgets into a single device in our pocket)

> * public awareness of environmental damage

> * governments that respond to those concerns by putting regulations in place to reduce those harms

> So, McAfee argues, what we need to address climate change and prevent other environmental catastrophes, while maintaining modern living standards for billions of people, is … even more of each of these [four forces], working in concert.

There currently seems to be a big hole in this approach, which is that rich jurisdictions need to be aligned with poorer ones to work in concert toward these goals, otherwise rich jurisdictions can just “pretend” they’re meeting goals when they’re just moving them to poor jurisdictions.

In other words, if government regulations incentivise efficiency, then our capitalist economy will provide that efficiency.

Which is what any environmental economist--or any economist generally--would tell you.

It's long been known that businesses that produce a lot of waste have lower profits. This is a large part of why businesses try to combat fraud, waste and abuse: For their financial health.


I guess it's nice to see this well-known fact applied at a broader level. I haven't seen that before.

But it also makes me feel a bit like "We're dummies, no?" What pretty much everyone knows to be true at the micro level shouldn't be some kind of big news at the macro level, yet it is because everyone thinks capitalism is ruining the planet.

Because rich countries brings their products from somewhere else, they don't have to produce them, they don't have to deal with the environmental impact of producing them.

This is true. China's environmental impact is 22% lower if you exclude their exports, and many countries in Europe would have 30% higher impact if you include their imports.

Figures from the abstract - somewhat out of date but true to a lesser extent today - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851800/

That's a common misconception, China is not even amongst the top 50 countries when it comes to industrial production value per capita. And most rich countries are near the top:


That’s a myth, the US (and Canada, Germany, etc) still does tons of manufacturing and mining locally.

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