Acton Institute Powerblog

Worried about climate issues and poverty rates? Andrew McAfee has good news

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Things are getting better. A lot better. If you spend a significant amount of time watching cable news, this may come as a surprise. So, how much better is the world getting?

Currently, less than 10 percent of the global population lives in extreme poverty! Yet, a study from Barna recently found that 67 percent of Americans believe the global poverty rate to be increasing.

The good news doesn’t stop simply stop there. Globally, people are living longer, eating more, drinking cleaner water, receiving more education, experiencing less violence and suffering lower rates of death through childbirth. In his latest book, “More From Less,” Andrew McAfee attributes this unprecedented global progress to the “Four Horsemen of the Optimist”– tech progress, capitalism, responsive governments and political awareness.

Chances are that if you are reading this, you are one of the few who realize that the world is getting better in almost every measurable category that is correlated with widespread human well-being. What may come as a surprise to you, as it did for me, is that this unprecedented global progress has come at the same time that we are experiencing what McAfee labels as “dematerialization.” This is especially true in the West.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, exponential economic growth globally has meant that we were increasingly hard on our planet. As economies grew, we used a lot more ‘stuff’ — more energy, more raw materials, more pollution. But in the past 50 years this has changed dramatically. Today, in the United States, economic growth has been decoupled in many ways from resource use. As our economy continues to expand, we are using far less “stuff.”

This decoupling of economic growth from natural resources has come largely from the advance of technology and capitalism. Technological progress provides us with innovation while capitalism (read market forces) supplies us with the incentives to innovate in the first place. As my colleague Samuel Gregg points out in a recent essay at Law & Liberty:

What drives the success of sophisticated manufacturing in America isn’t taxpayer dollars. Rather it is the fact that (1) advanced technological capabilities plus (2) entrepreneurs, private investors, managers, and employees who take risks, work hard, and adapt in the face of competitive pressures, enable American businesses to provide advanced manufacturing goods to consumers in America and elsewhere in more comparatively efficient ways than anyone else.

One small but significant example of this dematerialization is the weight reduction of aluminum cans in packaging. As McAfee highlights in “More From Less,” through employing innovative technology in a competitive environment U.S. manufacturers have managed, over six decades, to reduce the average weight of an aluminum can from 85g to just 12.75g. McAfee says, “if all beverage cans weighed what they did in 1980, they would have required an extra 580,000 tons of aluminum.”

McAfee provides many more examples just like this in his book. Businesses, armed with rampant technological progress and incentives to innovate and reduce costs because of market forces, find ways to produce more and better goods for consumption with fewer raw materials. For example, your iPhone has replaced standalone products such as your radio, alarm clock, and landline phone.

If we truly want to help the world’s poor and at the same time create a cleaner environment for ourselves and our children, we will need to harness the power of technology, greater access globally to free markets, and governments that maintain sound institutions of justice.

As McAfee highlights in his book, the good news is that we are doing a pretty good job already. That said, there are still 750 million people living in abject poverty around the globe and we face increasing dangers from climate change, corporatism and various forms of populism.

Solutions to these serious problems won’t be found in some federal or supranational one-size-fits-all scheme now being advanced by politicians on both the left and right. Lasting solutions are to be found in communities of families, churches, non-profits and private enterprises working to find innovative solutions to societal problems, supported by sound institutions of justice that protect private property and rule of law.

In our current political moment, while it can seem as though the sky is falling on us, McAfee provides reassurance that this isn’t at all the case.

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Patrick Oetting