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Jason Holliston
Friday, July 02, 2004  
Every Country Can Be A First World Country pointed me to a fascinating article on Prospect Magazine in the UK. It takes the view I've always had, but actually backs it up with reason and not just optimism in humanities' potential. Michael Lind argues that in the future -- and possibly not too far down the road -- everyone on Earth can live the lifestyle of today's American rich, and without destroying "Mother Earth". Currently, the estimate for population growth predicts that the population of the world will top out at 9 billion by about 2050.

He makes a convincing argument, and succeeds in deriding the positions of the neo-luddites:

Can 9bn people enjoy stuff, space and speed?

The austerity school says no. The earth's environment will be devastated if 9bn human beings attempt to enjoy the average standard of living of a middle-class individual - much less a rich person - in Europe, North America or Japan. Not only should the majority of the world's people resign themselves to poverty forever, but rich nations must also revert to simpler lifestyles in order to save the planet.

But the pessimism of the austerity school is unfounded. There may be political or social barriers to achieving a rich world. But there seems to be no insuperable physical or ecological reason why 9bn people should not achieve something like the lifestyle of today's rich, with technology only slightly more advanced than that which we now possess.

He concludes that yes, it's possible we can do this. The main barrier to such a world will not be scientific or technological, but social and political:

Providing stuff, space and speed to 9bn people without putting serious strains on the global environment is possible, but not inevitable. A planet of crowded slums, extreme inequality, devastated ecosystems and rising atmospheric temperatures is a frightening possibility. To avert such a future, campaigns for political and behavioural reform, at both the national and international level, will be necessary to supplement the development of new technology - no argument there. But political and moral campaigns should take the preferences of people into account and they should be based on sound reasoning. It makes no sense to counsel individuals and nations to adopt austerity in cases in which there are technological solutions to problems created by technology. Sometimes there really are technical fixes.

Read the whole thing. There are those out there that disagree, saying that there's no way we could possibly have a world of people that live the lifestyle of the rich: a big, spacious home, large personal greenspace, a mass of electronic convenience items, plenty of food, and dependable (and aesthetically pleasing) cars. I believe you're flying in the face of history -- of mankind's proven cleverness and achievement when it comes to technological improvements. A great present day example are the plight of starving people. Do these people starve because we -- as a planet -- cannot produce enough food for them? No, absolutely not. The world produces more food now than is required to feed it's people, with a higher efficiency level per acre being reached almost every year. It's almost invariably due to social and political issues that these people do not have access to existing food stores. People starved in Ethiopia in the 1980's because of a civil war and an oppressive government, not because the food wasn't being sent.

I know I'm an optimist, and I'll happily admit it. But I also like to think than much of my optimism is grounded in reality, and this article shows that it is. The science and innovation will happen. It's up to people like you and I to help make sure that backward societies (such as the Taliban) don't stop the people from enjoying it.

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