There’s a U-shaped relationship between per capita GDP and the quality of the environment. “Measures of the quality of the environment do indeed fall in the initial stages of economic growth, but this trend turns around at about $5.000 per capita GDP, with many measures of environmental damage showing improvement from $8,000 onwards.” (Quote from filipspagnoli - although the original link no longer works)
Once a country achieves a certain standard of living, inhabitants become less focused on doing whatever it takes to survive and start caring more about the world around them. Poorer countries tend to chop down forests, richer countries to plant them. Economic growth also promotes technological innovations that reduce GHG emissions, especially in electricity generation, manufacturing, and transportation. Economic growth leads to increased urbanization and falling birth rates. Concentrated human populations are better for the environment than dispersed populations, because more room becomes available for wild habitat. Add in highly productive intensive farming and you’ve got even more land freed up for the flora and the fauna. With fewer humans, less land devoted to agriculture and less dispersion of human populations (e.g., urbanization), you get more and more re-wilding and re-foresting.
But isn’t economic growth associated with higher CO2 emissions and increased materialistic consumption? To a point - but we are witnessing both the decoupling of growth and CO2 emissions and the dematerialization of advanced capitalist societies. So what was true about economic development at one time is not necessarily the case anymore. For instance, in developed economies, young people care more about digital products and less about physical possessions. As Russell Belk puts it: “Things are disappearing right before our eyes”. Fewer things, less environmental damage.
Of course, economic growth will not solve all environmental problems, nor are its effects entirely benign. But growth is not the bugaboo a lot of environmentalists make it out to be. Harness and manage growth – don’t try to stop it.
Russell Belk Extended Self in a Digital World Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 40, No. 3 (October 2013), pp. 477-500.