For much of the last seventy years, economic growth has lifted the quality of life in Europe, North America, and East Asia, providing social stability after the violent disruptions of World War II. Today, however, many of the world’s most influential leaders, even in the United States, reject the very notion that societies should improve material wealth and boost incomes given what they believe are more important environmental or social equity concerns.
It is also not a coincidence that environmental protection is stronger in wealthy countries such as Europe, North America, or Japan, than it is in still emerging powers like China and India, as well as even poorer countries in Asia and Central Asia. Political leaders in these countries—globally over one billion people lack reliable electricity—tend to be more concerned with access to power than how to generate it without boosting greenhouse gas emissions.
Without economic growth, and the opportunity for people to rise up the class ladder, we will devolve, as Tocqueville warned, towards a class structure more favorable to “aristocracy” and authoritarian rule. Rather than seek to restore the class structure of the Middle Ages, we should again embrace growth, and look to innovation rather than punitive measures to address climate and other environmental issues. Economic growth should not be seen as a hindrance to a better world, but our best chance for greater social cohesion, upward mobility and a commitment to an improved environment. It is an ideal we can lose, but only at our own peril.