If six billion people enjoyed US standards of living would it spell environmental disaster for the planet? As the economies of China and India take off, this is no longer an academic question. Vincent Cable, senior research fellow at Chatham House, argues that-with one big reservation-the eradication of poverty around the world is environmentally sustainableby Vince Cable / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
Nothing is more calculated to send a shiver of unease through an environmentally concerned audience than to conjure up a world in which over a billion Chinese or Indians enjoy a western family lifestyle: a car (or two), a fridge, central heating (or air conditioning), a dish washer, an automatic washing machine-and 2.4 children.
The prospect may seem remote. However, China’s living standards are doubling every seven years if their own figures are to be believed (and certainly, even if they are treated with scepticism, every ten years). India is poorer and less dynamic but there is already a “middle class” of 200 million which has access to motor scooters, if not cars, and a wide range of modern conveniences. Well before the middle of the next century, China and India will have populations of over 1.5 billion, twice the present population of Europe and north America combined. Moreover, if present trends are extrapolated-always a hazardous assumption-they will enjoy average living standards much closer to those of the rich world today. It is possible to quibble about particular numbers and purchasing power equivalents, but the prospect is emerging of a world economy in which production and consumption is many times today’s levels.
To those of us who were brought up to believe that the extinction of poverty was among the greatest of human projects, this prospect of economic multiplication and technological advance inspires great hope and enthusiasm. For those who see the planet as a delicate, fragile organism, the prospect is less cheering. The difference is not just philosophical and aesthetic; the interplay between these contending attitudes is already beginning to shape policy in the fields of trade and international business.
The polarisation between them is also growing. In the late 1980s it was politically as well as intellectually respectable to argue both for growth and environment. The whole concept of “sustainable development,” as set out in the Brundtland report among other seminal texts of the time, was that economic growth is both necessary and feasible: necessary to overcome poverty and feasible because of technology. Rising living standards would contribute to a moderation of population growth (as is already apparent in the falling birth rates of Asia) and a reduction of many of the environmental hazards associated with poverty: contaminated water supplies; excessive tree destruction for firewood; the breathing in of particularates from primitive domestic cooking and heating methods.