Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Soon We Will Be Worse Than Herman Kahn

During the 1970s, Herman Kahn was a prominent critic of environmentalism and supporter. At that time, environmentalists were beginning to say that growth would have to end because natural resources and the earth's ability to absorb pollution were both limited, and Kahn was the most influential voice saying growth could continue. Because he was obese, he looked like an allegorical figure representing consumerism and greed.

But if we reread his book The Next 200 Years and do a few simple calculations, we find that soon we will be worse than Herman Kahn.

In this book, Kahn attacked environmentalists by arguing that limited resources and pollution would not stop growth in the short run, but he also predicted that growth would end in the long run because of “modernization, literacy, urbanization, affluence, safety, good health and birth control, and governmental and private policies reflecting changing values and priorities…” (p. 8). At this point, he said people would be free to devote themselves to leisure activities (p. 22-23).

Kahn predicted that growth would end when the per capita GDP of the entire world reached $20,000 in 1975 dollars (p. 6), which equals $52,880 in 2000 dollars.

When he wrote, in 1975, America’s per capita GDP was $19,961(2000 dollars). In 2004, America’s per capita GDP was $36,883 (2000 dollars).

If we project America's growth rate of 1960-2000, we find that in 2017, America’s per capita GDP will be $52,218 (2000 dollars), about the level where Kahn said growth would end because people's changing values and priorities would allow them to devote themselves to leisure activities.

I don't hear anyone saying that growth in the United States will end or even slow in the next decade. By the end of the decade, the average American will have carried consumerism and growth further than even Herman Kahn recommended.