Can a future population of 9bn enjoy the stuff, space and speed that is the preserve of today's rich without crippling the global environment? Despite the claims of the "austerity school," it is possible with technology only slightly more advanced than we now possess. Sometimes there really are technical fixesby Michael Lind / July 24, 2004 / Leave a comment
Can everyone on earth be rich? Not rich in relative terms – in a world of billionaires, millionaires would feel poor – but in terms of the lifestyle choices that today only the rich enjoy: in particular, in stuff (personal technology), space (low-density living in proximity to nature), and speed (geographic mobility). The world’s population is expected to stabilise at around 9bn and then decline. 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.
In the advanced countries, ever since the industrial revolution the personal technologies of the wealthy, including telephones, dishwashers and cars, have become symbols of the middle class and then necessities of the poor within a generation or two.
As the economist Paul Romer pointed out in the magazine Reason (December 2001) US per capita income in 2000 was around $36,000. If real income per American grew by 1.8 per cent per year, by 2050 it would increase to $88,000 (in purchasing power of 2000 dollars), while 2.3 per cent annual growth would increase the average American’s income to roughly $113,000 per year. Romer observed that in the second scenario, “in 50 years we can get extra income per person equal to what in 1984 it had taken us all of human history to achieve.”
Obviously it will take a long time for the majority of people to attain the living standard of contemporary North Americans and western Europeans. But framing progress in terms of income growth in the less developed countries may make us unduly pessimistic. Falling prices may be more important than rising incomes. Increasing productivity that results in decreasing costs for goods and services has been responsible for…