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[flagged] Economic Growth Is Incompatible with Biodiversity Conservation (wildthingsinitiative.com)
94 points by bananaboat55 38 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

> Research shows biodiversity suffers at the hands of economic growth due to increased resource consumption and pollution

I don't think that's entirely clear. There's a concept in economics called dematerialization. From wikipedia: Dematerialization refers to the absolute or relative reduction in the quantity of materials required to serve economic functions in society.

The idea is that as a country becomes more developed and prosperous, the less resources are required to serve the needs of the people. For instance: Between 1977 and 2001, the amount of material required to meet all needs of Americans fell from 1.18 trillion pounds to 1.08 trillion pounds. The incredible thing is that this seems to be a reduction in absolute resources not resources per populace. Much of that reduction is due to technology (e.g. a cell phone replaced plastic from camcorder, camera, computer etc). The other is due to production efficiencies and migration to cities . A similar trend can be seen with carbon reduction in developed parts of the world.

I'm not 100% convinced by this idea, but it's enough for me to question the premise that economic growth leads to more resource consumption.


[Edit] There's a great interview with Andrew McAfee on this concept at EconTalk. Its based on the McAffe's book More from Less that explores the topics. He mentions a few limitations of the idea including environmental concerns


Modern cars take less metal and gasoline to run, for example, both of which are environmentally harmful to produce.

A podcast episode on precisely this phenomenon, titled "more from less": https://www.econtalk.org/andrew-mcafee-on-more-from-less/.

> moving to cities

You're absolutely right about de-materialization, but just on this point, migration to cities is probably about over (excluding suburbs, which will probably grow). Most people who aren't in dense areas are happy outside them, because the fact is a very large number of people don't like living in urban areas (those who do are grossly over-represented on this web site.) [0]

[0]: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/12/18/americans...

They're happy living outside them with their current level of access to cheap energy. If we address the need to fight climate change, cities might become much more comfortable to live in, given the economies of scale their population density allow.

The air pollution problem that commuting causes may be negated in the future with increases of working from home. I don't see how energy is significantly cheaper in the city vs. in suburbs or rural areas, aside from transmission costs. To which economies of scale do you refer, and how would cities become more comfortable? I assume maybe you mean cheaper? Housing costs, for instance, aren't actually lower, people just live in disgustingly small spaces.

I think you're mistaken about the inclinations of the average person. People like having a decent amount of living space. I don't think most would want to give up a back yard.

How about people who don't want to live in a dense urban environment, no matter much an economist tells them that the "economies of scale" of a city are more favourable for the statistical model they happen to believe in the most?

Current access to cheap everything! As a whole, the suburban lifestyle has a greater reliance on the fruits of globalization.

I don't think we're guaranteed a future where we can rely on globally sourced cheap products materials and labor.

Not making any predictions about that, though. Just saying that if globalization wasn't a thing, cities would be more important.

Why should cities become more comfortable ? Just make up policies that forces/incentivizes people to move to the city and voilà.

> You're absolutely right about de-materialization, but just on this point, migration to cities is probably about over (excluding suburbs, which will probably grow).

There's absolutely no way of knowing this, and, quite frankly, the argument that most people are happy outside of them pales in the face of the post-pandemic economy and how that will materially affect suburbanites.

So far I think it's anyone's guess how things will shake out, though I'm still hoping for a "return to normalcy" with reduced trust in the government. Do you have a different theory on how things will look going forward? If so, I'd appreciate a different perspective.

I don't know to what degree normal is possible going forward: were seeing massive unemployment amongst an already highly economically precarious population. I think the only thing I can really see is a rebirth of mass politics, likely going in the rights favor in 2022 midterms and 2024 election. It's the only thing that makes sense to me for an empire in decay. Either that or pulling a British empire and becoming a lamprey on whoever the next hegemon is, but I think we've already seen what that looks like in regards to all the outrage over american companies, Hollywood, etc "cow-towing" to China and Americans don't like it.

The wheels of history are in motion, so not one of us really knows anything.

If this was true, then living in a city would cost about the same as living in a suburb. (Or even less, since city dwellers require fewer resources, as mentioned above.) As it stands, living in a city is significantly more expensive, and yet many people do it. Job growth has been focused on cities for a while now, and that trend does not seem like it is changing.

Conflation of "resources" with supply-and-demand. Living near the ocean doesn't use more resources but it's priced higher more because people want to live there bidding up prices. Similarly living in cities cost more because people want to live there (in aggregate).

Well, on the one side, you've got a Wikipedia article whose sole source is a Reason.com article from 2001.

On the other side, you've got everyone who ever studied this issue, showing that consumption measured by any statistic at all is on a constant upward trajectory. For example, a 2019 UN report:

"The Global Resources Outlook 2019 builds on this body of evidence to present the story of natural resources as they move through our economies and societies. It is a story of relentless demand and of unsustainable patterns of industrialization and development. Over the last 50 years, material extraction has tripled, with the rate of extraction accelerating since the year 2000. Newly industrializing economies are increasingly responsible for a growing share of material extraction, a situation largely due to the building of new infrastructure. Virtually none of the massive growth in materials consumption in the new millennium has taken place in the wealthiest countries; however, not much of it has taken place in the poorest countries either, which make up the group in the most urgent need of higher material living standards."

-- Global Resources Outlook 2019

So, which one do you think is true, the Reason.com article from 2001 or the UN report (and every other entity that has ever studied this)?

One example is not using wood or charcoal for cooking or heating as economies mature. Also, though double edged sword, moving from subsistence farming to Corp farming is more land efficient.

Does this apply to energy though, which is the main cause of climate change? Economical growth seems quite correlated to energy consumption, and I have yet to see serious articles showing how energy consumption can be decoupled from economical growth. And of course by that I mean world-wide. Developped countries delocalizing production (thus energy consumption) to China should be taken in account.

The problem is exponential growth.

Even if we invent warp drive the problem is still exponential growth.

Once we invented artificial nitrogen fertilizer it took about two centuries to go from less than one billion to about ten billion. At the same rate it will take about two centuries to reach 100,000,000,000 and two more to reach a trillion.

Something has to give.

Something already gave. The fertility rate in the US and Europe are below the population replacement rate. The fertility rate in China is below the population replacement rate. About the only place it isn't is Africa, and give them office jobs and better access to birth control and it would be there too.

It's actually becoming a problem the other way, because the fertility rate is dropping too fast, and then you end up with a top-heavy population which has too many retirees and not enough working-age people to support them.

The amount of material required may drop, but the amount of material actually used definitely increases. This argument is a bit disingenuous because it implies that our resource usage has reduced when in reality the opposite is quite true. Unfettered capitalism optimizes to create the most wealth, not necessarily the highest efficiency. It's much easier to grow wealth by tapping new resources, which is why there are constantly hundreds of billions of dollars at work doing so.

There's a great political cartoon I saw once (we've probably all seen it) where a guy in a tattered suit is sitting at a campfire with some other people and he says, "yes the planet was destroyed but for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders." It may be weird to say but that single cartoon did more to influence my view of my place in the world than anything else. I had aspirations of working in finance that have since completely and happily abandoned.

I don't think the point in the title of this post is even arguable anymore. Now we just have to decide what we want to do about it and what kind of future we want. I commend organizations that are trying to tackle the problem because they're really up against a lot.

Imagine the cartoon with the dialogue "yes, millions of people continued to live in subsistence farming and faced an early death, but for a beautiful moment in time the Yangtze Finless Porpoise continued to reproduce"

I don't accept the premise that it's impossible to lift the entire population out of that existence without unrestrained environmental damage.

That literally is the premise of the article though - economic growth is impossible without environmental damage

That doesn't make it true.

National parks, massive non profit animal parks, and well funded conservation teams all need funding and time. Both of those are a luxury in most places in the world with underdeveloped economies.

Across the world in countries living in poverty the environment always takes a backseat. Without a stable economy and stable nation states the outcomes will be far worse.

It’s hardly just either/or.

If anything it’s the mere existence of humans and population levels aren’t going down anytime soon. The fact they engage in trade for survival and to prevent suffering is merely a product of that.

The only way this articles direct correlation makes sense is if economic success doesn’t increase capacity for conservation and humans ability/technology isn’t capable of being at a minimum neutral harm to the wider ecosystem.

But it will always be a balance, that’s just the cards we were dealt being born on this planet. I mean we were already killing thousands of animals and countless plants and manipulating the earth well before the word ‘economy’ was ever invented.

The problem is conflating societal development with economic growth. Do the rhetorical people in the GP comment living in subsistence farming need money, or just food? We grow more food than we need, and if we as a species chose to allocate those resources as they were needed, we could feed everyone. Instead, consumers which are unprofitable to provide food to are left to fend for themselves. Crops regularly go to waste due to lack of demand from customers who can pay.

Societal development is more or less limited by economic growth. We grow more food that we need due to past economic growth, without it almost everybody would be subsistence farmer, like they were couple hundred years ago.

Maybe they need medicine, cars and a computer to write HN comments as well? Or is that just a privilege for us here?

can you do it with no environmental damage?

I don't think the only intermediary between untold cataclysmic climate change and "nature before humans" is only subsistence farming.

Of course, it is a completely unfallable and natural law of the universe that you can't have living standards without big number going up.

Oh wait. I'm pretty sure some of the countries with the biggest numbers don't really have that good of living standards.

There's a reason Jesus' reply to the first temptation of the Devil was "One does not live by bread alone": the world is not a problem to be solved, and as long as man continues to see it like that, their suffering will continue unabated.

This is what mankind should be shooting for: http://www.fiftytwostories.com/?p=270, not whatever goal the blind idiot god of capitalism spews forth.

The sun will eventually burn out, asteroids will continue to hit, plagues will continue to come....the entire universe will ultimately end.

It always seems that those who fetishize "environmental conservation" don't really appreciate the situation we are in. That doesn't mean that we should actively destroy it, but its fate has already been sealed.

The notion that there is some pristine perfect world is probably a holdover from religious thinking that has now morphed its way into a modern secular religion.

"Don't shit where you eat."

Sensational title that doesn't really match the "meat" of the article.

The article is mostly about changing behavior patterns in developing areas. Stop these impoverished areas from hunting local wildlife to fill the nutritional gaps in their diet (with an assumption that some sustainability framework can be put in place that moves excess resources from one area to the developing areas so they don't have to hunt local game).

This seems exactly opposite of what we see in the world. As countries get richer, they expand protection of wildlife and the environment.

"Economic poverty is incompatible with biodiversity conservation" is a much more believable title.

What is the US doing? Ignoring science for short term profits! Leading the conservation movement were Morales’s Bolivia (pre coup) who said that we should leave oil in the ground, and indigenous people around the world.

Every Bolivian Spring is accompanied with skies filled with soot from the farmers burning rain forest to plant crops. If that's conservation, I want none of it. I'll take my ever expanding forests and healthy wildlife even if it takes a few coal and ammonia plants to make it happen.

I agree with much of this article, but I think a larger point is that we need to rethink what economic growth means. The current measure of GDP has become a cudgel to promote destructive behavior. What's the point of GDP anymore beyond measuring economic growth and contraction? It doesn't say anything about sustainability of the growth. Nor whether or not citizens are well taken care of.

A new measure that could replace GDP needs to do a better job of measuring environmental as well as human benefit. Imagine if instead of measuring how the economy grows in pure dollar amounts of economic output we also measure restoration of ecosystems and happiness, health of citizens and communities.

I don't think one necessarily has to redefine economic growth, but perhaps redefine what the kind of growth is that we want.

Japan has not had much growth for 20 years now [1], and Japan is regarded generally as one of the most developed, safe and pleasant countries in the world.

In South Africa, economic growth is a problem in the sense that it needs to be much higher in the traditional sense for sure, but there are certain aspects of the country that have dramatically improved in the last 20 years (and many that have unfortunately declined). The economic indicators don't properly take into account the informal sector, and specifically cash transactions within the informal sector. So for example, many low wage workers now have good brick houses, where only 20 years ago they would have had huts or corrugated iron shacks. There is also now electricity in most places, with the side effect of tree coverage getting better in some rural areas as firewood is not necessary to make food.

I think the inability of the economic and financial sector in Johannesburg (considered the best in Africa) to properly quantify growth in rural areas certainly is a social problem as well, with the economy becoming an abstract concept further removed from many normal people's lives. I also think this is why populist movements gain traction as their vocalisations are easier to understand than the a more sober and reserved economist trying to explain carefully to a crowd why the informal sector isn't properly being quantified and that we need to develop new economic metrics.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Japan#Macro-economi...

GDP is an objective measurement of a (somewhat) tangible thing (the economy). The measurement has value--it lets you know how the economy is doing. This directs monetary policy and fiscal policy.

You can add any new metrics you want, but 'replacing' GDP strikes me as a good idea only if you want to hide the economic impact of collectivist policies behind a veneer of vague, hand-wayvy 'measurements' like 'human benefit'.

> A new measure that could replace GDP needs to do a better job of measuring environmental as well as human benefit. Imagine if instead of measuring how the economy grows in pure dollar amounts of economic output we also measure restoration of ecosystems and happiness, health of citizens and communities.

"When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."

- Economist Charles Goodhart

an economist would argue that you just need to place a dollar amount on those things of environmental value that need measuring, then include it in gdp. it’s less clear if that’s the best solution, but it’s probably better than a wholesale replacement by an entirely new valuation system (chesterton’s fence and all).

If one changes the title from "Economic Growth Is Incompatible with Biodiversity Conservation" to "Continual Growth Is Incompatible with Biodiversity Conservation" you get a much more interesting statement, to my mind.

You can either decide that the planet can support an infinite number of human beings or a finite number. I cannot have reasonable discussions with the former camp, so when it comes to the latter, it's all about that finite number as a function of lifestyle, healthcare, relative comfort, and so on. This many millions of people if we all live like Americans; that many billions of people if we are all miserable and flea-bitten.

Bringing the economy in it is at best a distraction, at worst it simply invites discussion from people who think their pet -ism economic theory will make the underlying problem go away.

Properly understood economics and ecology should be the same science, or more precisely, economics = ecology + psychology.

There are a few schools of applied ecology (e.g. Permaculture) and the result is a new kind of basis for food production that allows us to meet our needs in harmony with Nature.

E. O. Wilson has proposed setting aside half of Earth for non-human nature: https://www.half-earthproject.org/

> Half-Earth is a call to protect half the land and sea in order to manage sufficient habitat to reverse the species extinction crisis and ensure the long-term health of our planet.

If we were to do this and also convert our food production system to be ecologically harmonious we could solve most of our problems.

This article identifies some places where economic growth is the deeper, non-proximal cause of biodiversity loss, but that doesn't mean the two are incompatible. The answer I personally prefer is to take the brakes off of urbanization, packing humans into taller and denser places like Singapore and Hong Kong, and letting the surrounding lands be wild. I know that urban living isn't to everyone's taste, but elevators are the most efficient and environmentally friendly public transportation we have, and so long as we need to cultivate some land to live, we might as well cultivate it as much as possible (by putting tall buildings on it, for example).

Interestingly, it is mostly affluent countries who even care about biodiversity.

Knowledge work is where the most economic value remains to be added. That's not at all incompatible with biodiversity.

Something I learned from reading "The Future of Life" is that a third of the world's landmass is enough to preserve a healthy representative sample of all of the world's ecosystems.

If the world were a third smaller than it is, we'd certainly still have economic growth.

Wow this is a topic where I’ve been want to ask a lot of questions before. Not surprised that many people are thinking of the same thing. Are there any other resources about these I can read of?

Ah, the metric at which Venezuela was beating half of Europe in 2016. Seems like it didn't work out well...

It's seemed for a while like most of Venezuela's problems come from the external sanctions we put on them while trying to help.

I believed this too for a while, but in the end, happy Venezuela was a fairy tale like the GDR, built on oil. One strong indicator was the brain drain that was going on for decades, long before harsh sanctions.

It's from Bhutan.

Either way "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."


Nasa says earth is greener today then 20 years ago. Thanks to India & China. https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2019/02/28/nasa-says...

Nasa: CO2 is making Earth Greener https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2436/co2-is-making-earth-green...

I don't agree with the premise, but if you're going to make me choose I'd pick economic growth over biodiversity every day, and it's not even hard.

Is this exactly a surprise to anyone? Governments have specifically avoided doing things like not causing global warming in pursuit of economic growth.

This article makes the strange claim that because bushmeat hunting on one island was driven by economic growth, the latter is incompatible with biodiversity conservation. As if economic growth wasn't possible in other ways!

It makes no attempt to tell us why biodiversity in its present form is valuable, when species have gone naturally extinct for billions of years. I could do without bats as breeding colonies for dangerous virus strains, for example.

Because interactions and dynamics between species goes a little further than “bats bother me, let’s make them extinct”

Saying species become naturally extinct so nothing to see here is very similar to saying the planet has cycles of warming up and down so we’re all good here. Of course it never happened as fast and on the magnitude that it has in the last 100 years but never mind it’s probably nothing to worry about, I don’t particularly love winter as much as I do summer.

The bats did nothing wrong. The problem is the way humans treat the bats (and other animals): keeping them captive, in too-small cages, mixed with too many other animals, feeding them the wrong things, etc.

This is not a question of morals or guilt. Some species naturally harm and put other species at risk, bat colonies breed virus strains that can kill many mammals. Mosquitoes kill many people every year without "doing wrong". Should we preserve them at any cost?

bats are amazing animals and fill a crucial biodynamical role in the ecosystem, for instance, pollinating many beneficial plants important to human survival.

Some bats do pollinate some plants, but few (if any) depend on it and none is important to human survival.

The richest 0.1% and 1% can cut down on their lifestyles first, which are contributing the most to global warming.

This is exactly the kind of bullshit that keeps us from becoming an interplanetary species.

Well, with -5% growth that's not going to be such a problem.

United States is Incompatible with Biodiversity Conservation

Depends on your time horizon. Eventually, the Earth will be vaporized and the only thing that will stop that is unimaginable economic growth.

It's oddly infuriating to read this from a "developing" (ie poor) country.

We get permanently schooled by all this rich countries who ransacked both our and later their natural resources in order to build themselves into prosperity.

Yes, it would be awesome if every one of us adopted a hectare of land and personally hugged every little bird and fox every day to try ensure their precious existence (which is undoubtedly precious and a tragedy if lost), but we cannot and won't do that if they sit on a source of precious, scarce income.

It's because of stuff lke this that poachers exist; you don't risk death to kill rhinos for eating, you do it because you may feed your family for a week by selling a chunk of it.

People don't risk angering whatever arcane disease some random swamp animal has for the thrill of it, they do because that's their only means of making money.

If richer countries wanted to stop poorer countries from exploiting whatever sources of income they can find, then they should help build other means of obtaining said income.

As in, not just throwing money at people and expecting that to magically solve anything, but actually build means of making a living and doing so in a way that doesn't set up a predatory structure like businesses will do.

EDIT: Loving the insta-downvote with no comment. Please, come out of hiding and explain yourselves.

OK, given the sudden surge in anonymous morons unable to follow basic prompts for civil discussion and the refusal of the implementors to do something about the mounting garbage on this site, I'm adding hacker news to my block list.

I'm done with y'all.

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