Saturday, October 14, 2006


I can't help it. At root, I am a pessimist. A. It's easier. B. It's funner.

Nevertheless, like a good Existentialist I am taking a Sustainable Development class. This week, the homework assignment was to say, in one page or less, whether we thought that "Sustainable Development," however defined, was likely to become a reality or remain a myth in coming decades.

I once worked for a non-profit organization that tried to give people hope in a bright future. I am no longer so employed, so my pessimistic side was free to take over on this assignment. Here's what I wrote:

Given the current global situation, my prognosis for sustainable development in the coming decades is unfortunately quite bleak. I foresee a two-tiered world that combines two possible scenarios envisioned by the Global Scenario Group’s Great Transition Initiative (sorry about the atrocious illustrations). In the Developed World only, the GSG’s “Conventional Worlds” scenario should continue to prevail, consisting of a regulated market with ongoing policy reform designed, as GSG puts it, “to achieve greater social equity and environmental protection” (for its own citizens, primarily). This Developed World, consisting of roughly 25 percent of the world’s population, will prosper behind a global fortress in the form of U.S. and allied military forces. As the GSG describes its “Fortress World” scenario, “ensconced in protected enclaves, elites [will] safeguard their privilege by controlling an impoverished majority and managing critical natural resources, while outside the fortress there is repression, environmental destruction and misery.”

I believe this Fortress World is already under construction in the form of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its large oil fields. An indication of the permanence of this stance can be found in the massive expenditures the Developed World makes to maintain its fortress. As Lawrence Korb, former U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary in the Reagan Administration, has pointed out, the U.S. and its allies will spend over $750 billion on defense in fiscal year 2007, not including the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This is five times as much as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and the Sudan will spend combined. Such a disparity suggests that the U.S. and its allies are interested not in protecting themselves from potential foreign enemies, but in safeguarding access to and control over a natural resource – namely, petroleum.

Free-market optimists would argue that free trade and technology, along with price signals to spur the development of alternative energy, will eventually be able to deal with a planet of 9 to 10 billion human beings who will all expect enjoy a US level of consumption. They point to the relatively prosperous and clean Developed World and argue that there is no reason that the Developing World cannot develop in the same way.

However, the widening income disparity between the richest 20% of the world’s population and the poorest 20%, from a 30:1 ratio in 1960 to a 150:1 ratio in 2006, suggests that development of the Developed World has come at the expense of the Developing World. If the Developing World is to follow the Developed World’s development path, they have a problem: no one left to exploit. The Developed World was first on the field, which gave it an enduring advantage – it could exploit the resources and despoil the environments of other countries while accumulating enough income at home to build regulated markets that produced high incomes and relatively clean environments.

China and India are closing the income and consumption gap, but their consumption is still so far behind that of the United States that it seems unlikely that they will be able to achieve parity with the United States without touching off an environmental catastrophe inside their own borders.

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