(guest article by Alex Cull)
It’s something we’ve become used to hearing from the sustainability merchants. The WWF, for instance, tell us that if everyone in the world lived as we do in the UK we’d need three planets instead of just the one . Add an extra planet to make it four, and everyone could live like an American, according to the WWF’s 2012 Living Planet Report . “We are using 50 per cent more resources than the Earth can provide. By 2030, even two planets will not be enough” .
The obvious answer would be to acquire a few more planets – this corner of the galaxy does seem to be abundant with them – but that’s a matter for future centuries. In the meantime, what the WWF and fellow green outfits want us to do is consume less, so that we can all live happily and sustainably on the one planet Earth – which means that we ought to use less energy and raw materials, burn less fuel, eat less, travel less, move less, want less.
That Americans and Europeans should have to consume less goes without saying – we’ve always been the villains of the piece, where eco-catastrophe is concerned, and our comeuppance has long been overdue. But then there’s a problem. The Earth now has a population of 7 billion, set to reach about 10 billion by mid-century. Many people in the developing world want to have what Americans and Europeans have – our middle-class lifestyles and consumption patterns. And that, say the WWF, will send humanity’s global footprint off the scale.
This is the problem and the dilemma. The teeming masses are poor, and everyone agrees that poverty is a bad thing. But if the poor were to become rich and the hordes of Asia, Africa and Latin America all began to drive Ferraris and scoff smoked salmon canapés alongside their wealthy Western counterparts (I might be exaggerating just a little, for effect) – it would surely mean catastrophe. And not just for the salmon.
All this is straight out of Malthus, of course. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race”, etc., and so forth . Since the days when flares were first in fashion, the good reverend has been enjoying (if “enjoying” is quite the right word) a bit of a revival, one famous milestone being “The Limits to Growth” in 1972.
Another early milestone, somewhat less well-known, is the book “Ark II: Social Response to Environmental Imperatives”, by Paul R. Ehrlich and Dennis Pirages, published in 1974.
In Chapter 7 of “Ark II”, for example, the authors solve the problem of world poverty . They say there are three things everyone must do. Firstly, people in rich countries must stop consuming so much. Secondly, rich countries should send massive amounts of money, in the form of development aid, to poor countries. Thirdly, “rising expectations in both ODCs and LDCs must be dampened”, i.e., people in both rich and poor countries should lower their expectations, with regard to consumption patterns and the way they live. (In the authors’ jargon, by the way, “ODCs” are “overdeveloped” countries, “LDCs” are less-developed countries.)
The authors expand on that problematic third point:
“Many leaders of the poor countries now have their minds set on repeating the mistakes that have been made by overdeveloped nations. They want polluting steel mills, automobile factories, and other types of heavy industry. They want to free themselves of dependence on the ODCs for manufactured goods and even to compete with the ODCs in some markets. It will be virtually impossible for a significant number of the LDCs ever to become industrialized along traditional lines for reasons that have been previously discussed. If, by some miracle, the job did get done, humanity would have to pay a terrible price in terms of environmental destruction.”
So, no industrialisation for the likes of Nigeria, Mexico or Vietnam. Where will they get manufactured products from, then? From the developed countries (say the authors) and at prices the poor countries can afford. But what if Nigerians want to drive BMWs? Well, sorry…
“The LDCs do not require many of the trinkets that seem to be essential in the overdeveloped areas of the world, and an immediate problem that can be tackled is setting new developmental priorities. Poor countries need effective mass transit and freight systems, bicycles, small motor scooters, farm-to-market roads, pest-proof storage facilities, and fertilizer plants. Most of them will have to depend on agriculture as a major source of income simply because they lack domestic deposits of minerals and fuels. Thus, leaders of LDCs might well consider moving in new directions and developing new types of societies that are not heavily dependent on consumption of material goods.”
So all that development aid would have strings attached. Lucky old LDCs, eh – no BMWs permitted but they’re allowed bicycles and fertiliser plants. However, the authors have some alternative lifestyle suggestions for those in poor countries who might otherwise hanker after “trinkets”.
“New satisfactions might be found in new forms of interpersonal relations, meditation, and appreciation of the natural environment, as well as turning inward to personal development rather than outward to the material world. In many countries this would simply mean reinstating traditional life-styles that have been displaced by the industrial onslaught.”
That last sentence invites some scrutiny, doesn’t it. How romantic it sounds! People in poor countries get given the chance to rediscover the traditional lifestyles (replete with personal development and appreciation for nature) they had forsaken when succumbing to the “industrial onslaught”. Rescued from all that nasty over-development!
Except… Something is missing. And that something is the rather obvious fact that people in poor countries (and in all countries, come to that) generally have their own ideas as to what they want. It is not for the authors or anyone else to decide whether a person living in Bangladesh or Ghana or Peru ought to desire something the authors deem a “trinket” and whether they should be able to acquire it or not. And it is not for people in developed countries to urge people in poorer countries to abjure industrialisation and return to “traditional lifestyles”.
The authors also write: “… it is clear that cherished beliefs that the LDCs can some day catch up with the industrial countries are nothing more than myths propagated by the ‘haves’ to keep the ‘have nots’ in line” – which seems to imply that people in developing countries are unable to think for themselves and are having ideas put into their simple heads by wily Westerners” .
This line of thinking is, of course, horribly patronising and neo-colonialistic tosh, not to put too fine a point on it. And really, you don’t need me to tell you that. But echoes of such attitudes have persisted in environmental circles – in their 2008 report “Survival of the Fittest”, for instance, Oxfam encouraged the maintaining of East African people in traditional lifestyles, instead of “inappropriate development policies” .
The authors go on to write:
“In an oversimplified analogy, the world today can be viewed as one in which a few wealthy people drive powerful automobiles and a lot of poor people walk but want powerful automobiles. Ways must be found to change this picture to that of a world in which everyone does some walking but may also have a motor scooter; where some people have small economical cars, many people ride on trains and buses, but nobody has or really desires a powerful automobile.”
This is where I would make the following suggestion: how about a world where a few people drive luxury cars, many people drive economical cars and some have motorbikes and scooters, many people ride on trains and buses and where many of the same people also cycle and walk? This is, after all, something not unlike what we have in the UK. A few people can afford to drive top-of-the-range cars, some aspire to do so but cannot afford it and many are perfectly happy to do without. A few people live in huge mansions but many are content with their two-bed flat or three-bed semi. A few might regularly dine on sirloin steak but many would settle for fish fingers with peas and baked potatoes. You get the idea. We have a mix of consumption patterns, and the best thing is there is no need for a committee to impose this situation upon us from on high. There is no call for a quota on Ferrari ownership. Why should Bangladeshis not be able, if they want, to have something similar?
The opposing argument, of course, would be that even that relatively modest mix of consumption patterns, if adopted everywhere, would sink the planet. But would it, really? Yes, the global human population is still rising, although it’s likely to peak later this century. And yes, many resources are finite. Nevertheless, we live in a world of 7 billion people and also a world where bumper harvests are being produced and where more people have been lifted out of extreme poverty than at any other time in history. This is not a perfect world, but it is certainly not the environmental hellhole predicted by modern Malthusians 40 years ago. Now they foresee us descending into an environmental hellhole over the next 40 years, hence all the extra non-existent planets they say we’ll need by then.
They could be right (anything’s possible) but I think their track record speaks for itself. This is the kind of people who were predicting global famine and mass starvation in the 1970s and ’80s and saying that the West should withhold food from poor countries unless they adopted draconian population-control measures. Now they are dampening rising expectations in the developing world, all in the name of sustainability. I often wonder why on earth anyone is still listening to them.
 Thomas Malthus, “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, 1798.
 Paul R. Ehrlich and Dennis Pirages, “Ark II: Social Response to Environmental Imperatives”, 1974: Chapter 7, “Sailing Troubled Waters: The International System”, p.243
 Paul R. Ehrlich and Dennis Pirages, “Ark II: Social Response to Environmental Imperatives”, 1974: Chapter 7, “Sailing Troubled Waters: The International System”, p.233