Environmentalism is the Key to Growth

Environmentalism is the Key to Growth
May 8, 2014

(This item originally appeared at Forbes.com on May 8, 2014.)

After you figure out the Magic Formula — Low Taxes, Stable Money — you begin to wonder why so many others are apparently not that interested in your “high growth strategy.”

Some people, countries and leaders are very interested in high growth. China today. Korea and Japan in the past.

But, I would say that most people living in the “developed world” — Western Europe, the U.S., and Japan today — are not really that interested in rapid economic expansion. There are a lot of potential reasons for this, including bureaucratic rot and the usual power-grubbing of the elites, which tends to translate into higher taxes and, especially today, various forms of funny-money games.

However, I would say that even on an idealized basis, the dreams of people in their twenties for example, high growth is not really a priority.

What is “economic growth”? For a conservative in the U.S. today, it ideally means profitable and expanding companies, rising asset values, successful investments, greater productivity, higher wages for all including the minimum wage, lower unemployment, more interesting and fulfilling work, the introduction of helpful technologies from electricity to radio to antibiotics to the Internet and 4G wireless, and general prosperity from the lowest to the highest of our society. In other words, the general state of affairs in the 1950s and 1960s.

All of this is true and correct.

But for a lot of people, “growth” has another, negative side. It means: further expansion of our hideously ugly pattern of automobile-dependent suburbs, relentless population growth, more fossil fuel consumption, more concrete-pouring and asphalt-paving, more pollution of every sort, more topsoil loss, groundwater depletion and soil salinization, more GMO crop monoculture and accompanying pesticide overuse, more depletion of the already nearly-dead oceans, more Fukushima-style nuclear pollution, more degradation of our already degraded food, more drugging of an already overdrugged population, more deterioration of the best parts of our culture, art and societies, more environmental destruction of every sort, of the same sort that we have been witnessing for literally the last two hundred years.

In short, More Of The Same. A malevolent expansion of the human industrial cancer upon this once-beautiful planet.

All of this is true and correct as well.

The problem with “greater productivity” is — what are we producing? And do we really want more of it?

People in the developed world have a special appreciation for this. People in China, for example, know what they want. They want what we have. They even have a rather spooky habit of imitating what we have verbatim, with all of its problems, rather than inventing some kind of meaningfully different, improved Chinese alternative. They don’t seem to learn from our mistakes.

We don’t quite know what we want. But, we know what we don’t want. We don’t want More Of The Same. This translates into the haphazard and unfocused, but enthusiastic embrace of “green jobs.” Can’t we make a living in some way that is not inherently destructive of all we value?

We didn’t have these conflicts in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, the creation of the modern environmentalist movement in the latter 1960s corresponds closely with the end of the great period of U.S. economic expansion and wealth creation, which effectively ended in 1971. Republican Richard Nixon was one of the most aggressively environmental presidents ever.

We in the U.S. don’t have much of a cultural tradition at all. We think Elvis, Marilyn, Levi’s, Corvettes and McDonald’s is “culture.” However, people in places like France, Italy or Japan are quite aware of the richness of what their forebears created, over a period of centuries. They’ve also seen it disintegrate before their eyes, during the decades of “modernization,” which in practical terms has meant: imitating the American way of doing things. Perhaps that’s one reason why people in those places don’t seem particularly interested in the Magic Formula.

I think that to resolve this dilemma, we need to create a new pattern of living that is both environmentally sound and also a lot more pleasant for us humans than U.S.-style automobile suburbia. As I see it, there is one and only one solution: what I call the Traditional City. That is one reason why I’ve spent so much time fleshing out that idea.

The Traditional City is part of a larger change which I think is necessary. I call this the end of the era of Heroic Materialism, and the transition to a new aesthetic. The term “heroic materialism” is not mine, but the name given to the modern era by Kenneth Clark in his wonderful 1969 BBC documentary, Civilisation.

Heroic Materialism, as a cultural aesthetic, began with the advent of the Industrial Revolution around 1770. It has delivered many great benefits, but we have done it to death. Doing more of it is just More Of The Same — in other words, today’s problem.

The point is, according to Clark, we used to do things a different way, and we will do things a different way in the future as well. I think we should start doing things a different way now. We can keep all of Heroic Materialism’s greatest advantages, use that as the foundation for our new pattern of civilization, and discard all of Heroic Materialism’s problems.

Ideally, “growth” will be perceived as a good thing again. Our economic activity will be directed toward making things that are beautiful and make us happy, and also which not only slow the process of environmental degradation but reverse it substantially. I’ve pointed out that people living in Traditional City environments today, in places like Osaka or Barcelona, are already using a fifth or less of the total energy use per capita of suburban Americans.

This has happened mostly by accident. What could be accomplished if we actually tried a little bit?

Once “economic growth” means making things that are beautiful, fun and environmentally sound, which leads to a richening and improvement of the best of our cultural traditions, in other words All Upside and No Downside, we would naturally want more of it. We would no longer be conflicted about “growth.” We would want to replace all of the catastrophic errors of the latter stages of Heroic Materialism with our new and better way of doing things. We would naturally look for a way to do so, and find that the Magic Formula would help enable that. All the jobs would be “green jobs.”

It is possible. In fact, it’s easy.