Eco-Living Magazine

An Uncomfortable Paradox

Posted on the 16 January 2013 by 2ndgreenrevolution @2ndgreenrev
The reaction that many experience when considering what economic development will do for drawing underdeveloped nations away from high fertility rates, malnutrition, poor education, female suppression, and other undesirable conditions that accompany poverty alongside major population growth may feel like: relief. But for others, the reaction can be compared more synonymously with a small anxiety attack. Naturally, it’s hard for anyone who considers life quality of importance to deny that people in regions without access to clean water, nutritional security, or educational opportunities are the unfortunate subjects of injustice. With an estimated 15% of the world population in 2012[i] suffering from “undernourishment”, most of those residing in developing nations, one of the most elemental human rights seems to be at stake. It should then follow that the most just action to take would be to encourage the economic growth needed to pull these countries out of their impoverished state. Right?

The anxiety attack may begin to ensue as one considers the implications of widespread economic development. A case study for a quick examination of what “developed” often means in this context could be the obvious case of the good ol’ United States.  Our great country, a pinnacle of progression and development, consumes 25% of the world’s resources while harboring only 5% of the population[ii]. A 2006 publication concluded that one American has the environmental impact* of: 70 Ugandans and Laotians, 50 Bangladeshis, 20 Indians, or 10 Chinese[iii]. We are responsible for much of the tripling in global energy consumption over the last 50 years. Those who understand the intimate relationship between modern energy consumption and climate change likely recognize at least the tip of that iceberg’s impact on environmental health. That said, the staggering energy figures can’t really be eye-opening news to anyone familiar with the typical lifestyle enjoyed by the US resident. Unarguably, the extravagant consumption that characterizes modern Western tradition is what affords us all the comforts that we now can’t live without (Well, today our lavish lifestyles necessitate massive consumption habits. Sustainability visionaries might argue that a future where humans embraced natural laws instead of shunning them could be a paradise of sustained comforts). But, the logic that should follow says that when development = consumption, as it does here, the “solution” to the humanitarian injustices that bane many underdeveloped countries is ugly.

While the lucky, rich souls without major current survival issues over here flail and fail in attempt to figure out how to ensure that development there doesn’t mean the same thing as development here, the progress machine chugs away overseas. Those experiencing the aforementioned minor panic attacks might temporarily turn their backs, but after doing some quick mental math it’s hard to forget that the numbers in the proposed solution don’t really add up to any sort of utopia.  The implications of Western-like development in growing regions of Africa or Southeast Asia spell “big problem” for the entire planet’s future.  Ghandi must have experienced this haunting realization when he said “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West… keeping the world in chains. If our nation took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

When the ugly paradox seems inevitable, we can either keep redoing the math and hope that the numbers magically add up to something less disturbing, or we can try a different approach. Much as Garret Hardin pushed for a controversial revolution in thought surrounding “breeding rights” during the population explosions of the 60’s, we must engineer a major overhaul in the terms of foreign development.  We must prioritize the push for implementation of a truly different kind of development, if development can ever be considered a solution for avoiding water shortage, food insecurity, and environmental destruction instead of a catalyst for the worsening. Support the growing numbers who dedicate their lives to figuring out how to make this a priority for international governments. Or better yet, find a way to join.

Check out 2011 documentary Surviving Progress to learn a little more about some aspects of global economic development.

*Where Environmental Impact (I) is measured in terms of population (P), affluence (A) per capita, and the effect of the use of technologies (T) that support the affluence.  This system of measurement (I = PAT) was devised in the 1970’s by John Holdren, and Paul and Anne Ehrlich.  Dr. Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population studies and biology at Stanford University, argues today that the Earth’s optimal population size is two billion. He said recently “I have severe doubts that we can support even 2 billion if they all live like citizens of the U.S. The world could support a lot more vegetarian saints than Hummer-driving idiots” [iii].

[i] FAO, WFP and IFAD. 2012. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012. Economic growth is necessary but not sufficient to accelerate reduction of hunger and malnutrition. Rome, FAO.
[ii] Credit Suisse Research Institute. Global Wealth Report. October 2010.
[iii] Newton, Dillingham, Choly. Watersheds 4: 10 Cases in Environmental Ethics. 2006, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

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