4 October 2018

Don’t worry, Sir David. Neoliberalism is saving the planet


According to national treasure David Attenborough, we’ve got to get a grip on population growth.

Sir David says that the planet can only take so many people. But, given the fact that, as of this week, half the world is middle class – and middle class people tend to have fewer children, does he need to be so worried?

The growth of the global middle class – and the related fall in birth rates – is all down to the success of the much-maligned great neoliberal globalisation project. And the consequences for climate change are more profound than most realise.

Just about the only major attempt we’ve got at modelling this century for the globe is the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, prepared for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control.

Three things impact on emissions. How many people are there, how rich they are and what technologies they use. The interplay between these three is correctly described in these models. A richer population will become a smaller one.

Sure, as we get richer we live longer, this produces a bolus of population. But richer people have fewer children – no rich country has, absent immigration, a fertility rate that will even replace the current number of people. As places become richer, that fertility rate falls to and then below that replacement rate. We’ve not observed anywhere at all where this does not happen.

No, this isn’t about access to contraception, desirable though that obviously is. If people want it they should have it. Rather, it is the change in desired fertility which is some 90 per cent of the difference in the number of children arriving. Children not dying of those ancient plagues of infancy means fewer are desired, the move to an urban existence means the former rural value of young hands declines and so on.

Those SRES models contain all of this. Richer variants of the future have fewer people in them; poorer alternatives are more populous.

Those models also contain more basic economic wisdom. Trade makes people richer. By definition in fact, trade is economic activity, more economic activity means more wealth. So, a more globalised world is a richer one in those models.

There is a stark divide in the report: models of a more regionalised, localised, world have more and poorer people, a self-reinforcing cycle; a more globalised world will be richer and contain fewer people, again self-reinforcing.

In other words, globalisation – the bete noire of left-wing environmentalism – is in fact a major part of the fight against climate change. It will lead to exactly what Attenborough desires: fewer people to be making emissions.

Of course, richer people could be producing more emissions each as a result of being richer and that’s where the models differ through the technology used.

If we move to renewables, as we are, then those very models underpinning the IPCC process tell us that climate change isn’t going to be a problem. Do note that all more recent models are simply derivatives of these in the SRES. The underlying logic and linkages have not changed at all.

The world gets richer, we have fewer people, we switch to renewables and we’ve solved the entire problem.

Again, please do note this isn’t just a cheerleader for capitalist exploitation saying this. These are the very assumptions which underlie everything done in Paris, at COP this and that. All predictions of emissions in the future rely upon exactly this structure.

That half the world is now middle class is evidence that we’re solving that historical problem of abject poverty and destitution. And we’re doing it by that neoliberal-powered process of globalisation. The process isn’t just saving human beings, it’s saving the planet. And it’s the official documents that tell us so. Which isn’t a bad recommendation for a socio-economic system, is it?

In fact, we’re actually getting richer more quickly than any of the models predict: poverty is retreating more quickly, the impact upon population is arriving earlier, the switch away from emitting technologies is quicker than we thought it would be. That really is good news.

Tim Worstall works for the Adam Smith Institute and the Continental Telegraph.