It may be sad that Gywneth Paltrow and Chris Martin are “consciously uncoupling”, but happier news is that human consumption appears to be “decoupling” from environmental impact.

I’ve just returned from an optimistic and enlightening Dialogue meeting run by the Breakthrough Institute in Sausalito, California. (I know – it’s a hard life.) Winner of the event’s ‘paradigm prize’ was Rockefeller Institute environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel. His research shows that modern economies, like the US, have progressively lightened their diet in terms of energy, water, land and materials consumption, largely from a peak in the early 1990’s.

When we look at the data, it is easy to understand the environmental klaxons of 1960’s and 1970’s. The steady state economics of Herman Daly, which still largely defines the mainstream environmental paradigm, is a response to a neo Malthusian environmentalism. It looked then as if a growing, resource-hungry population would consume far more than the world’s carrying capacity could maintain. This has been popularized through the concept of ‘one planet living’ (or ‘peak-Earthers’ in the States).

However, in his essay the Liberation of the Environment, Ausubel carefully sets out the data to show a different trend emerging: trajectories that lessen pollution and conserve the environment, despite rising consumption to meet the needs of a growing population living increasingly rich, energy hungry modern lives.

At the heart of ‘one planet living’ is the meme that ‘if everyone on Earth was to consume at the level that the developed world currently does, then we would need three planet Earth’s worth of resources.’ Hence, lowering environmental footprints, through reduced consumption is at the heart of mainstream environmental thinking. In fact, Ausubel shows that although consumption has continued to rise over the past 25 years, this trend has “decoupled” from environmental impact. The key driver here is the urge to raise economic value through increased performance efficiency, particularly noticeable in energy.

Two tendencies have defined the evolution of energy systems. One is that the energy system is freeing itself from carbon. The other is increasing efficiency. By transitioning from wood to coal, then oil and increasingly to gas, Ausubel tracks the benefits from moving to a cleaner energy system, whilst reaping the societal benefits of growing energy use. “People want modernity”, Ausubel says.Energy systems in India and China are right now roughly equivalent to nineteenth century western patterns at the advent of the industrial revolution. Robert Wilson crunched the numbers and found that although China “now consumes half of the world’s coal, its per-capita coal consumption is far from unprecedented. China now consumes around 2.7 tonnes of coal on a per-capita basis. However, Britain had per-capita coal consumption of 4.6 tonnes in 1913, almost two times higher than China’s today. In fact China’s per-capita coal consumption is actually lower today than Britain’s was 150 years ago. Therefore, unless China sees a reason to transition to other fuels, its coal growth is far from over.”

So while there is a role for energy efficiency, the goal is arguably more to reduce carbon intensity than overall consumption.

global energy change

I found it particularly interesting that, along with projected decarbonization; food production decoupled from acreage; and more efficient water use; Ausubel also points to a trend towards dematerialization. Even plastics peaked in the 1990’s. Lower material intensity of the economy is good news for nature, enabling less waste, and the preservation of natural resources.

decoupling yall

Linus Blomqvist, research director at the BTI expanded on the theme in his talk, for example showing how intensification of agriculture has allowed humans to nearly halve per-capita cropland. However to achieve these savings: “A low footprint planet will very likely also have to be a high-energy planet.”

So if rising consumption is “decoupling” from environmental impact, is it time to re-evaluate anti-growth environmentalism? The question is more than an environmental one. It’s social and moral. Arguably, our modern lives in the West have distanced us from nature. We spend a small fraction of our time outside, for instance. Ausubel makes the wry comment that: “The achievement of ten thousand years of human history is that we have again become cave dwellers with electronic gadgets.”

The moral question relates to the need for growth in emerging economies. 1.4billion people around the world have no access to electricity and almost 600million of them live in Africa. Roger Pielke Jr, professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder wrote recently, anti-growth environmentalism risks “keeping poor people poor.”

The sad thing for the environmental movement is that Malthusian logic of an impending catastrophe may be resurrected without recalling what happened to Malthus. His fear that population would outgrow available food supply was disproven by his failure to predict technological innovation. Before long, agricultural yields per person were significantly higher. In the US, the debate continues to kick off between traditional environmentalists and pragmatic environmentalists about whether a “Good Anthropocene” is a contradiction in terms, or an aspiration.

Personally, I think optimism about technology and the human future is a far more innovative, pragmatic and engaging narrative than a pessimistic perspective. It is in this that the so-called ‘new environmentalism’ differs from the old, and why technological optimism is the real force for a green future.

First published on Business Green