Best Decade Yet: Humanity Grew Richer and More Sustainable in the 2010s
Over the last ten years, energy production has become cheaper and more efficient, Americans and Britons have started to consume fewer resources even as their standards of living increased, and greenhouse gas emissions have decreased. Contrary to the fearmongering of radicals like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Grow Yucca in NYC), life has gotten better for humans and the environment in the past decade.
Writing for Britain's Spectator magazine, Matt Ridley explained that the 2010s have seen "the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 per cent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline."
News often focuses on the tragedies — horrific mass shootings, poverty in Venezuela, war and civil strife in the Middle East — while ignoring the broad positive trends in living standards. Tragedies have been a fact of life for as long as humans walked the earth, but the increasing living standards are new and less shocking.
One of the greatest untold successes of the 2010s involved the decreasing cost of energy and the expansion of energy sources, especially among renewables.
The shale oil revolution from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which started in 2006 but peaked in the past decade, nearly helped make the United States a net energy exporter for the first time since 1953.
"The entire psychology of energy as a country shifted this decade to one of scarcity to one of adequacy and eventually abundance," Kevin Book, managing director for research at ClearView Energy, told The Washington Examiner's Josh Siegel. "What it means is Americans are not afraid of running out of energy like they used to be."
Before the shale oil boom, the U.S. was expected to become a big importer of liquified natural gas, but America now exports LNG to 36 countries, double the 18 countries at the beginning of the Trump administration. Shipping the gas to Europe has reduced the continent's dependence on Russia.
"The geopolitical leverage of dominant pipeline suppliers like Russia has been weakened, enhancing our energy security and helping move China to less polluting fuels," said Jason Bordoff, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a former White House energy adviser to President Barack Obama.
U.S. carbon emissions have declined this past decade, defying predictions that they would continue to increase. Natural gas emits half as much carbon as coal, and it generated 35 percent of U.S. power in 2018, the most of any source. Coal, meanwhile, dropped from 45 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2019 — and it is projected to drop still farther to 22 percent next year.
The past decade also saw a rise in renewable energy, which doubled since 2009. Renewables provided 18 percent of U.S. energy in 2018, with nearly 90 percent of the increase coming from solar and wind.
The decrease in consumption extends beyond energy, as well.
As MIT scientist Andrew McAfee documented in his book More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources―and What Happens Next, many nations are beginning to do more with less: less metal, less water, less land.
Ridley pointed out that a normal drink can today contains 13 grams of aluminum, much of it recycled. In 1959, it contained 85 grams. This switch represents a victory for both economic growth and sustainability. Britain's consumption of "stuff" likely peaked around 2000. In 2011, electric vehicle investor Chris Goodall published research showing that Britain was using less of the same resources to satisfy higher demand.
"The quantity of all resources consumed per person in Britain (domestic extraction of biomass, metals, minerals and fossil fuels, plus imports minus exports) fell by a third between 2000 and 2017, from 12.5 tonnes to 8.5 tonnes," Ridley wrote. "That’s a faster decline than the increase in the number of people, so it means fewer resources consumed overall."
How can the quality of life increase while nations use less quantity of resources? "Mobile phones have the computing power of room-sized computers of the 1970s. I use mine instead of a camera, radio, torch, compass, map, calendar, watch, CD player, newspaper and pack of cards," Ridley explained. "LED light bulbs consume about a quarter as much electricity as incandescent bulbs for the same light. Modern buildings generally contain less steel and more of it is recycled. Offices are not yet paperless, but they use much less paper."
Farming has taken large strides in recent years, as well. In the 1970s, experts predicted how much water the world would consume in 2000. The actual amount of water consumed that year ended up being half of what they predicted — not because there were fewer people, but because humans invented new ways to make irrigation more effective. Agriculture was the biggest use of water that year.
Efficiencies in agriculture are driving the planet towards "peak farmland." Even though the global population is growing, the productivity of agriculture is rising so fast that a growing number of mouths can be fed with a shrinking amount of land.
Ridley noted a 2012 study by Rockefeller University's Jesse Ausubel, which found that humans use 65 percent less land to produce a given quantity of food compared with 50 years ago. According to recent predictions, by 2050, the necessary land for agriculture will decrease by an area the size of India!
Sadly, many environmentalist policies would actually reverse the trends toward using less stuff, Ridley argued. "A wind farm requires far more concrete and steel than an equivalent system based on gas. Environmental opposition to nuclear power has hindered the generating system that needs the least land, least fuel and least steel or concrete per megawatt. Burning wood instead of coal in power stations means the exploitation of more land, the eviction of more woodpeckers — and even higher emissions. Organic farming uses more land than conventional."
"Technology has put us on a path to a cleaner, greener planet. We don’t need to veer off in a new direction. If we do, we risk retarding progress," he warned.
This remarkable progress has not come equally, even though it has benefitted nearly everyone in the world. Millennials enjoy pervasive entertainment, fresh food, and many new kinds of job opportunities, but we struggle to achieve homeownership. High immigration levels, radical liberal policies, and the push toward identity politics have increased political tensions, just as prosperity has deepened and widened.
The 2010s were an objectively great decade, but they may not have felt like it. Whatever their political persuasions, however, Americans should look back on the past decade and appreciate the progress. They should also reject radical proposals that would reverse these heartening trends.
Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.