Are cornucopian worldviews compatible with effective climate change mitigation?

This essay contends that cornucopian viewpoints are somewhat compatible with effective climate change mitigation (CCM) when regarding the need for innovation and technology, however this becomes limited when considering their drive for action and awareness of environmental trends. It outlines the discussion of cornucopian thinking, identifying the baseline for analysis with the viewpoints of Julian Simon, one of the most well recognised academics in the field. He notes how “writers about population growth usually mention a greater number of mouths coming into the world, and sometimes note more pairs of hands, but never mention more brains arriving” (Simon 1999, 35-36). This rang as the central theme of Simon’s infamous work, The Ultimate Resource. It is essentially his overriding contention, that increased population growth drives innovation and therefore solutions to global issues. Cornucopian theory is founded on essentially this notion, one they are widely critiqued for paying little attention to causation, the dismissal of evidence that doesn’t fit the mould, and their complete faith in uninterrupted progress. This essay will explore such short fallings, while continually recognising the positive compatibility that technological innovation (as a core theme in cornucopian theory) has to effect CCM strategies.     

Greek for ‘horn of plenty’, Cornucopian thinking derives from the assertion that the environmental problems faced by society either do not exist or can be solved by technology (generating substitution) and the free market (Fairlie, 2002/2003). Additionally, the theory rejects that population growth projections are problematic, as this will drive competition for invention under market forces. A fundamental contention of Cornucopians, this point is not particularly favourable in CCM as it utilises population models as oppose to that of consumption rates while also rejecting finite resource limits (Mellody 2014, 19). Reliant on increasing trends in the global efficiency of environmental usage, Cornucopians can be accosted for their willingness to rest on the laurels of general increases to human well-being across history, similarly risen against population rates. They recognise this apparent correlation as indicative that as the population increases, creativity is developed and so the standard of living improves (Aligicia 2009, 75). Cornucopians tend to reject studies counter to their argument, such as the exponential increase to fossil fuel use during this time and the impact this may have had on well-being (Purdey, 2012, 79). This essay assumes the danger of such ignorance, and the incompatibility of the model in effective mitigation strategies, particularly related to energy policy. It instead acknowledges the necessity for technology and innovation in altering the impact of anthropogenic emissions and consumption, when paired with the recognition and drive to tackle such changes.

To adequately interpret cornucopian theory as it relates to CCM, it’s important to recognise the founding father Julian Simon. Nicknamed “doomslayer”, he is regarded for having “routed nearly every prominent scaremonger of our time” (Aligica 2009, 73), critiquing predominantly the pessimism of neo-Malthusian models and the limits to growth movement (discussed later in this work). As an economist, Simon’s understanding of resources was critically data dependent. He gained most criticism for this, with crucial misunderstandings in the physical and life sciences” (Swaney 1991, 501), a factor carried across into cornucopian theory. One such case is the biological concept of carrying capacity (the number of organisms an environment can support without becoming degraded) (MacKellar 1996, 146), whereby Simon comments that continuous rises in knowledge have increased this capacity to levels so extreme the notion has become irrelevant (Simon 1996, 28). We know from climate experts that this is false, with overshoot day, the date for which humanity will have used nature’s resource budget for the year, occurring in late July (Global Footprint Network, 2019). We’re therefore utilising resources well above replacement levels, with carbon emissions from fossil fuels comprising 60% of this ecological footprint (Global Footprint Network, 2019). As a pioneering cornucopian, Simon symbolises the downfall of his theory; that there is no respect for environmental degradation and indeed, a stoic reliance on ingenuity to mitigate climate change. 

Prominent science historian Naomi Oreskes references that “climate change has never been just about the climate” (2015), that the environment doesn’t merely operate in an isolated ecosystem but is interdependent with human activity. The extensive time lag between such pressures and the resulting environmental impact is difficult to correlate, hence compounding the climate issue as a “super wicked” (Levin et al. 2012, 123) problem, unlike any crisis faced in human history (Scovronick 2017, 12338). The Paris Agreement (2016) aims to strengthen global responses to this by keeping the global temperature rise below 2oC, and to ambitiously limit this even further to 1.5oC (UNFCCC, 2019). It’s important to recognise however that levels of C02 in the Earth’s atmosphere already surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) in 2016. The only time this is believed to have happened was in the Pilocene period, where temperatures were estimated 2-10oC higher (National Geographic, 2019). There has thus been massive change instigated to climate, requiring rapid, dramatic action. 

Mitigation as it relates to climate change involves reducing the flow of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (NASA, 2019). Effective approaches as it applies in this context are thus strategies that result in reductions to emissions globally that anticipate meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement or lower. Mitigation aims to “stabilise emission levels in a timeframe sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner” (IPCC 2014, 4). Strategies for mitigation often include retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency, adopting renewable energy sources, aiding cities to improve sustainable transport mechanisms and promoting more sustainable uses of land and forests (GEF, 2019). While this essay argues for the support of technological innovation as it relates to cornucopian thinking and the compatibility in CCM thinking, critics warn of the nature of unproven technologies, and how they could give reluctant nations an excuse not to cut emissions (BBC, 2014). It is therefore pertinent that innovation is supported with an ongoing sense of urgency for the dramatic changes required to meet effective CCM targets, be this through ongoing climate activism (a rising phenomenon garnering awareness and attention to climate science) or otherwise.

The alternative school of thought in population-resource debates, that which Simon sought to completely undermine, are the neo-Malthusians. Thomas Malthus hypothesised that population numbers generally increase exponentially while food production grows linearly, never quite keeping pace with population and so requiring natural checks (famine etc.) to further growth (de Sherbinin et al. 2007, 2). In his “limits to growth” (Aligica 2009, 74) foundational text The Population Bomb, predecessor Paul Ehrlich supported Malthus’ stance of impending catastrophe. In 1968 he prophesised that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over” (Ehrlich 1968, xi), promoting fears of overpopulation and sparking discussion on the urgency of sterilisation, family planning and contraceptive use to control growth. The model was additionally denigrated by the fact that no global ‘crisis’ as predicted has ever occurred, as despite a growing population, innovation has driven resource efficiency (as cornucopian theory argues). Ehrlich himself failed to predict the green revolution, whereby the spread of new agricultural technologies that dramatically increased food production across the world (Wu & Butz 2004, 11). Where cornucopian theory looks at the past for lessons in the future, neo-Malthusian models tend to make pessimistic future projections (Ahlburg 1998, 318). The severity and unforeseen impact of climate change thus requires a recognition for urgent action, something where the fearmongering of the latter theory is useful. How mitigation may take place, however, is a limiting factor in neo-Malthusian models. 

Cornucopians tend to only recognise consumption in that an increased population allows for demographic shifts and the broadening of inequalities. This narrow lens is important, as consumption isn’t simply averaged across the population, and so increased growth does not necessarily alter the potential for climate mitigation. Indeed, “emissions are a symptom of consumption, and unless we reduce consumption, we’ll not reduce emissions” (Harrabin, 2019). Climate change is inextricably linked to economic inequality; with currently 20% of the world’s population enjoys high levels of affluence. This demographic accounts for 90% of total consumption globally, with comparably 4 billion surviving on less than $2 a day (UNEP, 2002). In 2017 the International Resource Panel, an eminent selection of scientists specialising in resource management, were commissioned by the UN to report on resource consumption globally. They found that, as oppose to business as usual trajectories, efficiency policies and initiatives could “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an additional 15-20% by 2050, with global emissions falling to 63% below 2010 levels (UN Environment, 2017). Recognition of the importance of consumption versus population is pertinent to compatible CCM strategies, something eluded from in cornucopian thinking.

The biggest asset to cornucopian theory as it relates to CCM is its positivist approach to creativity and innovation. It’s blind faith in humanity requires however balance with ongoing rational thinking and a push for change not generally symbolic of the model. The 2018 IPCCs Special Report on 1.5 degrees of warming highlighted that global emissions must peak by 2030 and rapidly decrease to net-zero by 2050 in order to stay within the safety limits established by the Sustainable Development Goals (IPCC, 2018) (mutually reinforcing of the Paris Agreement). Achieving this requires holistic changes relevant to mitigation discussions earlier posited and will most likely rely on technology for approaches on power generation plants, transport, food, manufacturing and buildings. In support of this, members of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition have committed over $1 billion in new technologies in the next two decades (Gray 2017). Whether it’s nuclear fusion energy power, electric cars that can travel similar distances to their petrol equivalent while charging in minutes, improvement of substitutes to drive down meat production, carbon capture storage (CCS) or solutions to hotspot congestions in cities, (Gray 2017) innovation offers unchartered possibilities. There is of course a number of factors influencing the development of such innovations, however more broadly, it remains the most compatible element of cornucopian theory to climate mitigation strategies.

Simon, as most cornucopians, was a staunch defender of capitalism and the free market economy, something arguably incompatible with the most effective CCM strategies. They argue that competition drives innovation, and that the declining price of resources is indicative of decreasing scarcity, a linkage which is not factually founded (Henckens et al. 2015, 102). In actuality, a number of factors drive down the price point of resources, including improvements in the efficiency of use (Henckens et al. 2015, 103). The IRP report previously discussed in this essay explains how efficiency models were not enough to hit the targets of the Paris Agreement, and that “business models aiming at high-quality not the selling of more product” (UN Environment, 2017) was an additional necessity. This is supportive of interventionalist claims, the prominent voice of Naomi Klein particularly. She comments on the need to fundamentally alter the current “throw away culture” (Klein, 2015) of modern society, and to overturn the supply-demand motives that promote the continual repurchasing of product. While CCM incurs a cost in the near term but will primarily benefit people in the future (Scovronick 2017, 12342). It is this holistic approach that Klein advocates for, and where Simon appears somewhat hypocritical by both believing himself altruistic and a proponent of capitalism (Aligica 2009, 83).

This essay contends that Cornucopian theory does not address the urgent need for effective CCM, other than to support the development of creativity and innovative technology use. Their lack of environmental awareness on topics such as resource limits, carrying capacity and consumption undermine contentions for compatibility in climate change theory. Cornucopians instead look to the past as indicative of improved well-being, one abetted by fossil fuels that can no longer be utilised for their incompatibility with CCM, as a lesson that innovation always succeeds. Without the invoking of a sense of urgency in technological developments, cornucopians have a tendency to hold blind faith in population growth and the capacity of the broader collective to alter course. In this way it is a popular theory (because it doesn’t seek action), however it does not go far enough to recognising climate change, let alone in its compatibility with CCM other than to promote creativity in technological innovation strategies for mitigation. 


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