Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Green new deals, ecological scarcity, and the lessons of history

Edward B. Barbier


The history of natural resource use and development, from the Agricultural Transition 12,000 years ago to the present, suggests that humankind has had to surmount successive scarcity problems:  From Malthusian population-land “traps” to fossil fuel scarcity, and now, ecological scarcity.

In any age of natural resource scarcity, there also appear to be winners and losers.  The winners adjust to the changing economic conditions imposed by scarcity, innovate before other economies do, and end up dominating trade and economic relationships as a result.  Over a thousand years ago, China, India and other Asian Empires were among the most powerful economies in the world, because their rulers adopted long-term strategies to parlay their vast agricultural and resource-based wealth into regional and then global dominance.  Today, modern China, South Korea and other Asian economies look to green and clean energy investments and technologies as propelling their economies to the forefront of global trade and development, as well as securing a more sustainable economic future.

The result is that China’s status as a world economic leader will depend less on its current efforts to manipulate its exchange rate and generate trade surpluses than on its long-term goals of dominating clean energy markets and technologies.  In this regard, China understands how economic development should respond to natural resource scarcity better than Europe and the United States.  China invested one-third of its fiscal stimulus over 2008-9 on green measures, is now the leading global producer of solar cells, wind turbines, energy-saving lights, and solar water heaters, is aiming to be the world market leader in fuel-efficient cars, and is experimenting with green pricing measures and regulations.

Europe is cutting back government spending, including on its green stimulus, and has failed to reform its inefficient carbon-trading scheme.  The US declined to back the 15% of its fiscal stimulus devoted to green measures with any meaningful carbon tax or cap-and-trade measures.  The result is that the West can only watch as its lead in green innovations and industries is overtaken by the East.

Nothing reflects more this disparity in approaches to natural resources scarcity and economic development than how the East and West view and use the term a “Green New Deal“.   Of course the original New Deal was the series of far-reaching policies and programs launched by the US Roosevelt administration in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s.  In response to the current Great Recession of 2008-2010, a Green New Deal is supposed to represent an equally comprehensive set of policies and spending initiatives, which aims to stimulate economy-wide jobs and recovery while protecting the environment, boosting clean energy and encouraging low-carbon development.  Whereas in Asia, the concept of a Green New Deal has been taken seriously, in Europe and the United States the term is employed only as a public relations ploy.

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About The Author

Edward B. Barbier

Edward B. Barbier is the John S. Bugas Professor of Economics at the University of Wyoming, USA. He is the author of two recent Cambridge University Press books, Scarcity and Front...

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