28 May 2014

Does growth always depend on natural resources?

George Monbiot writes:
"Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels."
Is this right? Actually most economists think that growth is driven by ideas and innovation not raw inputs. This 3 minute video by Deidre McCloskey provides a short economic history of growth since the beginning of time.

Can this really be true? Below are two charts showing energy consumption and GDP per capita from 1970 to 2012. In the UK, whilst our per capita GDP has doubled, our energy consumption has barely moved, and actually slightly decreased.

Of course there is a caveat to this story, and its a pretty big caveat. Whilst growth at the technological frontier (in advanced economies) can only be driven by innovation, in developing countries further away from the frontier, catch-up growth is possible by pure investment and copying existing technologies (such as, er coal-fired power plants). So whilst rich countries don't necessarily need to increase their overall energy consumption to grow, developing countries almost certainly do.

So the question for rich environmentalists is: was there one rule for us and another for everyone else? Or is it actually incumbent on us to invent some better technologies for the world to copy, rather than expecting them to choose between polluting the environment (like we did) or continuing to live on $3 a day for the rest of their lives?

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