Politics & Policy

Carbon Use and GDP

Why are progressives so eager to suppress the things most necessary for economic growth?

In his inaugural address on January 21, President Obama invoked great ideals of human dignity, equality, and most especially “progress” to justify his second-term agenda, a cornerstone of which will be a crusade to limit humanity’s use of carbon.

#ad#In fact, nothing could be more antithetical to the goal of advancing the human condition than restricting carbon consumption. A look at the relationship between living standards and humanity’s carbon utilization over the past 200 years, as shown in Figure 1, below, makes this perfectly clear.

Fig. 1 Average global GDP per capita as a function of carbon use, 1800 to 2010. GDP in 2010 dollars.

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The story that Figure 1 tells is remarkable; it is, perhaps, one of the grandest stories ever told. It shows how, over the past two centuries, by using carbon in ever-increasing amounts, the human race has lifted itself out of hopeless poverty and misery to achieve a modicum of dignity and happiness. Look at that line reaching up, in direct proportion to global carbon use, from an average global income of $180 per person in 1800 to $2,200 in 1960 to $9,000 today; that is progress.

Of course, we still have a ways to go. The current $9,000 average world income is just a fifth of the $45,000 U.S. average, yet we still have some poverty here. Still, the achievement is incredible. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for president on the promise of “a chicken in every pot,” and millions found the offer compelling. Today, in the United States, minimum wage is $7 per hour, and chicken sells for less than $2 per pound; so, a person working at minimum wage can buy a pound of chicken with about 17 minutes’ labor. This is freedom from want, indeed, delivered not by the New Deal, but by the terrific expansion of our use of carbon.

Who could be so callous, so cruel, so disparaging of the needs of the world’s poor as to wish to halt to this brilliant march forward before its benefits reach everyone? Yet that is the exact proposal of those who wish to stop the growth of global carbon consumption.

The relationship between carbon consumption and human well-being is causal, not coincidental. Carbon is the stuff of life, and it’s the stuff of everything used by human society. All of our materials are made of carbon or of substances, such as steel or glass, which are produced through the utilization of carbon. Moreover, every product that moves (since the supplanting of the oceanic sailing ship — which in any case was made of carbon) is moved by carbon. It is not the case, as frequently set forth by environmentalists, that humans use more carbon because they are wealthier and therefore able to buy more things. Rather, it is because we use more carbon that there are many more things to go around, and thus humanity is wealthier.

Despite all our gains, poverty remains the biggest problem in the world today. It is the biggest problem because it immiserates people directly and also because it indirectly causes many other problems, including disease, brutality, ignorance, crime, and even environmental degradation. The central task before us is thus enabling economic growth.

There are many elements needed to secure economic growth. Certainly, people must be politically free to innovate, invest, build, and create things, and they must be incentivized to do so by knowing they can keep the rewards for their efforts. However, from a material point of view, the historical data strongly imply that the two most important factors enabling global economic growth are population and the ability to use carbon.

This is evident in Figure 2, where I show the relationship between global GDP (in 2010 dollars) and the product of population and carbon use for the past century. It can be seen that for the past century, GDP has been directly proportional to population times carbon use.

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Fig. 2 For the past century, global GDP has tracked population times carbon use.

Again, the causal nature of this relationship is clear. Human population supplies the labor necessary for the creation of wealth; carbon supplies the matter and energy. Of course, the total amount of carbon used is also a function of population size. Furthermore the more carbon we use, the greater our population, which means more inventors, a bigger division of labor, and a larger market to support accelerated investments in everything from research to new factories to transportation infrastructure.

Freedom, population growth, and access to carbon: These are the three things most necessary for economic growth. It is truly odd that in a world crying out for abundance, the movement that defines itself as “progressive” has is attempting to suppress precisely those three factors.

 Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics, a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and the author of Energy Victory. His newest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanismwas recently published by Encounter Books.

editors note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.

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Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, is the founder of the Mars Society and the president of Pioneer Astronautics. His latest book is The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility.

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