John Maynard Keynes was one of the foremost economists of the 20th Century. In 1930 he wrote “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, an essay in which he drew attention to the great potential for prosperity at a time when public opinion in Britain thought that the epoch of enormous economic progress was over. In this essay he asked:
“What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence? What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?”
Concern for our grandchildren’s future motivates members of forourgrandchildren. How can we protect the Earth so that our grandchildren will have a future, of which reasonable prosperity is a part?
Keynes understood the need to qualify his optimistic predictions. He set out certain assumptions necessary for their realization:
“The pace at which we can reach our destination of economic bliss will be governed by four things – our power to control population, our determination to avoid wars and civil dissensions, our willingness to entrust to science the direction of those matters which are properly the concern of science, and the rate of accumulation as fixed by the margin between our production and our consumption”.
Keynes did not anticipate two principal factors that would derail his predictions. Both these factors had been identified in his time but were not generally recognized or accepted as a risk.
One was climate change, the consequence of the discharge of fossil-fuel generated CO2 into the atmosphere. Keynes referred to the remarkable “technical improvements in manufacture and transport [that] have been proceeding at a greater rate in the last ten years than ever before in history.” These technical improvements put the energy of fossil fuels to effective use. Unfortunately the very basis of the prosperity anticipated by Keynes was eroded by the means required to achieve it.
The other factor was conspicuous consumption. The vast scientific and technological improvements did not diminish let alone extinguish human greed. They only focused it towards acquiring the marvels and gadgets they had created. Neither our concern for others nor our concern for nature was strong enough to check our infatuation with technology.
A commentary by a modern economist runs:
“How could it be that a man of Keynes’s intelligence, with a deep understanding of economics and society, could be so right in predicting a future of economic growth and improving living standards and so wrong in understanding the future trends of labor and leisure, consumption, and saving?”
Keyne’s essay is brilliantly persuasive. It’s very brilliance serves as a reminder of the limits upon the ability of even the most intelligent thinkers to anticipate the future.