Earlier this month, a draft White House report was leaked to news outlets. The report, a year overdue to the United Nations, said that the United States would be producing almost 20 percent more greenhouse gases in 2020 than it had in 2000 and that the US contribution to global warming would be going up steadily, not sharply and steadily down, as scientists have made clear it must.
That's a pretty stunning piece of information – a hundred times more important than, say, the jittery Dow Jones Industrial Average that garnered a hundred times the attention. How is it even possible? How, faced with the largest crisis humans have yet created for themselves, have we simply continued with business as usual?
The answer is, in a sense, all in our minds. For the past century, American society's basic drive has been toward more – toward a bigger national economy, toward more stuff for consumers. And it's worked. Our economy is enormous; our houses are enormous. We are (many of us quite literally) living large. All that "more" is created using cheap energy and hence built on carbon dioxide – which makes up 72 percent of all greenhouse gases.
Some pollutants, such as smog, decrease as we get richer and can afford things such as catalytic converters for cars. But carbon dioxide consistently tracks economic growth. As Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman concluded last year, CO2 is "the one major environmental contaminant for which no study has ever found any indication of improvement as living standards rise." Which means that if we're going to cope with global warming, we may also have to cope with the end of infinite, unrestrained economic expansion.
That sounds gloomy, but maybe not. New data suggest that we've been flying blind for many decades. We made an assumption – as a society and as individuals – that more was better. It seemed a reasonable bet, and for a while it may have been true. But in recent years economists, sociologists, and other researchers have begun to question that link. Indeed, they're finding that at least since the 1950s, more material prosperity has yielded little, if any, increase in humans' satisfaction.