Life and Growth

Some technologies save lives — new vaccines, new surgical techniques, safer highways. Others threaten lives — pollution, nuclear accidents, global warming, the rapid global transmission of disease, and bioengineered viruses. How is growth theory altered when technologies involve life and death instead of just higher consumption? This paper shows that taking life into account has first-order consequences. Under standard preferences, the value of life may rise faster than consumption, leading society to value safety over consumption growth. As a result, the optimal rate of consumption growth may be substantially lower than what is feasible, in some cases falling all the way to zero.