We’ve Just Had the Best Decade in History

We are using less energy. We are using less land. Forests and wildlife are on the upswing.


Matt Ridley writes:

Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 percent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 percent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline.

And here is the environmental good news: We are using less stuff:

The quantity of all resources consumed per person in Britain (domestic extraction of biomass, metals, minerals and fossil fuels, plus imports minus exports) fell by a third between 2000 and 2017, from 13.7 tons to 9.4 tons. That’s a faster decline than the increase in the number of people, so it means fewer resources consumed overall.

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We are using less energy:

John Constable of the Global Warming Policy Forum points out that although the UK’s economy has almost trebled in size since 1970, and our population is up by 20 percent, total primary inland energy consumption has actually fallen by almost 10 percent.

We are using less land:

In 2012, Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and his colleagues argued that, thanks to modern technology, we use 65 percent less land to produce a given quantity of food compared with 50 years ago. By 2050, it’s estimated that an area the size of India will have been released from the plough and the cow.

Forests and wild life are on the upswing:

In 2006 Ausubel worked out that no reasonably wealthy country had a falling stock of forest, in terms of both tree density and acreage. Large animals are returning in abundance in rich countries; populations of wolves, deer, beavers, lynx, seals, sea eagles and bald eagles are all increasing; and now even tiger numbers are slowly climbing.


A modern irony is that many green policies advocated now would actually reverse the trend towards using less stuff.

4 Replies to “We’ve Just Had the Best Decade in History”

  1. This is Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times:

    In the long arc of human history, 2019 has been the best year ever…. 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases….
    Historically, almost half of all humans died in childhood. As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent….
    As recently as 1981, 42 percent of the planet’s population endured “extreme poverty,” defined by the United Nations as living on less than about $2 a day. That portion has plunged to less than 10 percent of the world’s population now.

  2. These notes cite only the most obvious and immediately important progress. Other areas of significant and accelerating progress include more durable and abundant crops through gene editing, stem cell therapies for replacing blood cancers and treating macular degeneration, genetic screening for early detection and treatment of childhood ailments, free world-wide education at all levels via the Internet, secure currency payments via cell phone programs for people without banks, relieving pressure no wild fish populations through fish farming, aquaculture and mariculture that creates highly productive 3D farming in place of 2 dimensional land farming, narrowly targeted new herbicides and pesticides that replace more toxic and more broadly killing chemicals; huge increases in work-from-anywhere jobs that liberate people and resources, and far more.

    Unless government becomes too prescriptive, in 2020 we might also see the development of engineered solutions ready to deal with global warming if and when needed. 2020 might even see the first net energy gains from nuclear fusion, energy that produces very little radioactive waste and no greenhouse gases.

  3. Ridley’s incisive piece just confirms what others have shown previously. In his 2014 book, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” author Alex Epstein demonstrated that humanity’s development and use of fossil fuels has made life immeasurably better for humans and the environment alike, simultaneously showing why the most commonly proposed alternative energy sources, not only can’t sustain or improve upon our currently, relatively high level of prosperity, but would, in fact, lead to social decline in developed countries, and worst of all, leave the poorest in developing countries in continued, unnecessary, penury.

    The most common attack on fossil fuels today comes from persons pushing the narrative that humans greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from burning fossil fuels, is causing a climate catastrophe. Epstein has a powerful answer to that misguided claim:

    “Climate is no longer a major cause of deaths, thanks in large part to fossil fuels. … Not only are we ignoring the big picture by making the fight against climate danger the fixation of our culture, we are ‘fighting’ climate change by opposing the weapon that has made it dozens of times less dangerous. The popular climate discussion has the issue backward. It looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability.”

    Similarly, in the document, Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels (CCR II), the Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change wrote:

    “Access to affordable, plentiful, and reliable energy is closely associated with key measures of global human development including per-capita GDP, consumption expenditure, urbanization rate, life expectancy at birth, and the adult literacy rate. This research reveals a positive relationship between low energy prices and human prosperity. A similar level of human prosperity is not possible by relying on alternative fuels such as solar and wind power.”

    Both publications provide copious numbers to back up these claims. In short, wealthier is healthier and wealthier societies are better able to anticipate, adapt to or respond to social, political, climate, and other natural upheavals or changes than poorer countries.

  4. Getting more from less is sustainable conservation. And we are getting better at it not from government regulation or making radical changes in behavior. Instead, it is the result of innovative technologies that are motivated by market-based economies.

    As this article notes, Matt Ridley does a great job sharing the success of a wealthier and healthier world. In his 2015 article, The Return of Nature, Jesse Ausubel demonstrated how we are using less material, in absolute terms, to produce more outputs. Innovative technologies are driving these changes. Technologies that are motivated by capitalist systems that encourage finding better ways to produce what society wants.

    Andrew McAfee’s new book, More from Less, helps connect the dots between a more prosperous world and better environmental quality. According to McAfee, capitalism and technological progress are enhancing the human condition. Innovations have “provided the opportunity to save on resources, while capitalism has provided the motive.” McAfee considers that markets alone cannot solve all problems and we can debate over the best tools to resolve that. Nonetheless, keeping the course for 2020 and beyond means enhancing economic freedoms on a global scale.

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