Why more people die as the economy grows
As economies grow, so does pollution, like from this Essex refinery. Credit: John Stillwell   

Doctors rarely go on strike, but when they do there’s some pretty good evidence that death rates either stay the same or go down. That’s not to say that we’d be permanently better off without them, but it is slightly awkward.

Another awkward fact is the tendency of death rates to rise during periods of strong economic growth. It’s a puzzle that Austin Frakt unpicks for the New York Times:

One study of European countries just before and during the Great Recession found that a one-percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate is associated with a 0.5 percent decline in the overall mortality rate. Other studies of Europe during different periods, as well as those of the United States, found a similar relationship between joblessness and mortality.

“This is counterintuitive, since economic growth is a major factor in higher living standards. When the economy is more productive, we have more resources to promote health and well-being.”

What is it that makes growth so deadly (at least in the short term)? Here’s part of the answer:

“Occupational hazards and stress can directly harm health through work. Some studies find that alcohol and tobacco consumption increases during booms, too. Both are associated with higher death rates. Also, employed people drive more, increasing mortality from auto accidents.

“During recessions, people without jobs may have more time to sleep and exercise and may eat more healthfully. One study found that higher unemployment is associated with lower rates of obesity, increased physical activity and a better diet.”

Obviously, we can’t hide in our beds all day; so what can we do about the dangers of gainful employment? Most of it comes down to us: spending our money more wisely, eating more healthily and driving more safely. Employers should also realise that expecting people to work long hours is a really good way of getting a sick, tired and unhappy workforce. 

However, the biggest danger associated with stronger growth is not one that individuals or companies can do much about on their own:

“…a surging economy does more than generate greater income. An industrial economy also pumps out more air pollution as more goods are produced. Polluted air, it turns out, is a major contributor to the mortality-increasing effect of an economic boom. In their analysis of how economic growth increases mortality, David Cutler and Wei Huang, of Harvard University, and Adriana Lleras-Muney, of U.C.L.A., found that two-thirds of the effect can be attributed to air pollution alone.”

Some further evidence:

In their analysis of the Great Recession in Europe, José Tapia Granados of Drexel University and Edward Ionides of the University of Michigan found that a one-percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate is associated with a one percent lower mortality rate for respiratory illnesses…”

We should not have to choose between jobs and health, growth and clean air.

Fortunately, an end to the worst air pollution is within sight. In most places in the world, airborne pollutants are primarily produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, especially coal and oil. As luck would have it, these are precisely the activities that we are pledged to phase out in the fight against climate change.

In many countries, including the United Kingdom, we’re very close to getting rid of coal as a significant source of electricity. The internal combustion engine is also heading for obsolesence, with manufacturers racing against one another to get to an all-electric future.

The growth paradigm in economics is sometimes described as a treadmill: a constant struggle to stimulate enough supply to enable more consumption; and enough demand to enable more production. There is more than a grain of truth to this. 

However, capitalism, which is as much about innovation as it is about growth, is not condemned to go around in circles for ever. At its best, it spirals upward – creating problems, but also solving them (at the prompting of democracy).

In an imperfect world, this may be as close to sustainability as we get.