Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Elusive Environmental Villain

There is a common idea that the developed nations are the world's environmental villains. This is a myth. True, we create most of the carbon dioxide, consume most of the energy, and use most of the raw materials. Yet when we scratch beneath the obvious, things are not that simple. Despite appearances, life in the developing world is no more sustainable than life in the first world. Where we consume fossil fuels and raw materials, the developing world consumes wilderness. Where we create CO2 and plastic water bottles, the developing world creates poverty and disease. There are no good guys and bad guys. Both paths are unsustainable, and it is only us, with our wealth and technology, that can lead the way to a better balance.

Few would argue that the western way of life can continue indefinitely. We are changing the very climate of our planet with our CO2 emissions and we are using up our resources at a tremendous rate. Clearly we must do better. But by many measures, the developed world has the right idea. Our populations are stable, we have decent environmental standards, and people live long and healthy lives. We have bought these things by using up the earth's tremendous natural wealth, and unfortunately the bank is now getting empty. The earth does not have limitless resources. The atmosphere cannot suck up endless carbon.

As a result of our excesses, many argue that we should go back to a simpler way of life. The average citizen of India produces 5% of the CO2 of the average American. Wouldn't it be great if we could all live a little bit more simply and watch our problems go away? Unfortunately, this simple way of life is another myth we have constructed. Nobody, not even a subsistence farmer, wants to be subsistence farmer. That's why so many poor people leave the countryside every year to live in horrendous conditions in urban slums: the countryside is worse. People want health, freedom, a comfortable house, and an education. And why not? The fact that many of us who have these things choose to waste our tremendous good fortune on television and inane celebrity gossip does nothing to make the life of the poor any more noble. Our culture may be shallow and depraved, but it beats being a child prostitute in Bangkok or a corn farmer in Guatemala. Poverty is horrible. We must not forget that.

We must also be careful not to equate simplicity with sustainability. The rapidly increasing population in poor countries puts tremendous pressure on natural areas. When nearly everyone is a farmer, doubling the population involves cutting down a lot of forest. And when most of the farming is slash-and-burn agriculture which destroys the land after only a few years, the problem is compounded. Poor farmers may not emit much CO2, but the land they burn is the lungs of our planet and the source of much of our biodiversity.

Subsistence agriculture is only sustainable with a stable population. But poverty itself drives population growth, so subsistence cultures almost by definition have rapidly growing populations. I argued recently that access to free birth control should be a basic right. But while better birth control will clearly have an impact on population, most poor people will still choose to have large families. When you have nothing but a plot of land (no old-age security, no decent medical care, no education) then children become your most obvious asset. The more children you have the better your chances of being fed and cared for in your old age. It's the world's oldest pyramid scheme, and like all pyramid schemes it must collapse. The collapse comes when there is no land for the children. After 10,000 years, that time has arrived.

Contrary to popular belief, it is we, in the rich world, who are closest to living sustainably. Our populations are generally stable. We live in large urban centers that allow us tremendous economies of scale on transportation and infrastructure. We treat our sewage, keep our garbage out of rivers, and try to protect our environment. Billions of dollars are being spent researching clean technologies and better ways of doing things. There is a tremendous public awareness of environmental issues and a will to pay for them. My annual water bill is greater than the yearly income of 2 billion people. It is wealth that enables me to treat my sewage.

We in the rich world already live more sustainably than we did 50 years ago, and we have the tools to do better still. Take crops for example. The green revolution has allowed us to improve crop yields tremendously. Since the 1940s corn production in the United States has quadrupled while the land used for corn farming has fallen. By using first-world farming techniques we can easily feed most of the world's population while substantially reducing the amount of cultivated land. Or look at energy; while our CO2 emissions are clearly much too high, we have all the technologies that we need to reduce them. Solar panels are getting better and cheaper every day, wind farms are popping up everywhere, and people are figuring out clever new ways to hide carbon in the ground.

We must not forget however, the damage we did on our path to wealth. We also cut our forests, mined our mountains, and polluted our water supplies. We cannot afford to repeat these errors on a global scale. We also cannot afford to leave billions in unsustainable poverty. Our road to wealth was long and dirty but now there are shortcuts. We must help poor countries leapfrog directly to cleaner, more sustainable technologies. We all share this planet, and when the last tree falls in Borneo we will all be poorer for it.

The idea of a simple, environmentally sustainable way of life that so many people cling to is a fantasy. It doesn't exist. It never did. Only we, in the rich world, have the solutions to our planet's problems and the wealth to pay for those solutions. The question is, do we have the will? Do we have the will to tax carbon to the point where we will get a 90% reduction in emissions, even if it means energy prices triple? Do we have the will to enforce such tough recycling laws even if it means that we pay much more for all our disposable stuff? Do we have the will to help poor countries get richer even if it means opening up our markets to their products? Will we give them the technologies and assistance that they need to jump directly to cleaner technologies? Are we willing to feed some of the world's poorest people so that they don't have to cut a plot of land out of the jungle? These are the choices our generation will be remembered for. They are ours to make.

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