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The Sustainability Seesaw

July 25, 2008

There is a lot of talk these days of the rise of China and India as they climb the “development ladder” out of the Third World basement.  Talk of innovative forms of capitalism and global access to markets allowing millions to escape poverty.  Talk of increased living standards for the masses that will open up a new era of global prosperity.  Talk of new superpowers in town that will even up the playing field of international influence.  There’s only one problem with all this talk: The development ladder doesn’t exist.

A ladder implies a hierarchy.  Those at the top are lucky enough to control substantial amounts of wealth with the comfortable lifestyles and expectations of power that go along with it.  Those at the bottom are less fortunate, and dwell in varying states of poverty dreaming of the chance to climb up a rung or two.  The allure of this imagery is that all countries could in theory climb to the top of the ladder with the right economic conditions and some good luck.  The American Dream gone global.

Unfortunately, we happen to live in a finite world with finite resources.  Rather than scrambling up an imaginary ladder, communities around the world are actually balancing precariously on either side of a seesaw.  On one side sits those lucky few with their big piles of resources to consume.  On the other side sits the vast majority of humanity struggling to make do with what is left.  You can move around on this seesaw, but do it too fast or in only one direction and the whole delicate balance will come crashing down around us all.  Too far to the left, and the world will suffer ecological collapse through the depletion of natural resources.  Too far to the right, and society will unravel as poverty and exploitation explode into strikes, terrorism and revolution.

The trick is for both sides to move slowly but surely towards the middle together until they both reach the point of sustainability.  This may sound simple on paper, but when imposed on reality it means that the rich must get poorer and the poor must give up on ever getting so rich.  Try selling that dream to the masses.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. adamfritz permalink*
    July 29, 2008 11:48 pm

    Thanks for the excellent comments! I agree completely that there is a need for those communities (not only countries, but also communities within countries that do not share resources equitably) on the underdeveloped side of the seesaw to increase their living standards. This is how they will edge their way closer to the middle of the seesaw. My point in saying that “the poor must give up on ever getting SO rich” was more a reflection of the fact that people around the world see the current living standards in the West as achievable (think China) when in fact this is not possible without some other group of people lowering their living standards accordingly (think Windsor, ON). Living standards for the poor can and should get better, but there needs to be a more realistic role model.

    I like to focus attention on those “middle income” countries for inspiration as to where all of us should be heading. Countries like Costa Rica, Botswana and Slovenia are closer to living at that middle point of sustainability than most of us, but they don’t get the praise and attention they deserve. Instead, they get cut off from development assistance and thrown into the competitive world of showing off your social and economic status through overconsumption of frivolous goods.

    This brings me to Reilly’s question (or at least my take on it): How should we measure the wealth of a community? Wealth is often measured in terms of the consumption patterns of a society. The GDP. The size of your house. The contents of the loot bags at your kids birthday parties. This underlying assumption reflects upon how we measure success, and drives the positive feedback loop of more and more consumption at an unsustainable rate. How should we measure wealth in a sustainable society? By how much carbon we emit? By how many friends we have? By how happy we are? Answering this question will help lead us towards the mid-point of the seesaw.

  2. July 28, 2008 11:08 pm

    After reading Adam’s post and the comments, two really pressing questions jump out at me:

    1. Judging from the picture this is a seesaw of consumption, not a seesaw of wealth. If that’s true, then moving to the midpoint doesn’t mean moving towards or away from wealth, but rather towards sustainable consumption. Is part of the issue changing our ideas about consumption, so that we don’t equate it with wealth? Can we see the midpoint of the seesaw as more wealth for everyone?

    2. What is the best way to move to this midpoint of the seesaw? Agreeing on a convergence point for carbon outputs is one way. A successful Doha round might be another – as the National Post suggested today:

    In international negotiations, whether they’re on trade or climate change, should countries at different ends of the seesaw be treated the same way?

  3. Steve Williams permalink
    July 28, 2008 9:05 pm

    Great summary of the issue, but I don’t think your statement “it means that the rich must get poorer and the poor must give up on ever getting so rich” is necessarily true.

    Dr. Andrew Weaver at the University of Victoria ( among others is a proponent of “Contraction and Convergence”. The premise is that national governments need to negotiate to a Contraction point – an agreed upon Carbon output level at a given time. (Dr. Weaver recommends a target of net-zero output).

    A Convergence point is also agreed to – a time at which all citizens of the globe will produce an equal amount of carbon. One of the keys to this approach is that the rate of decrease for the developed world is much steeper than that of the developing world. In fact, most models allow for increases in absolute carbon output levels for developing nations before starting to decline and meet developed world levels at the Convergence point.

    This permits citizens in the developing world to pursue a quest for an increased standard of living and then take advantage of carbon output mitigation tools and technologies created in the developed world.

    For good graphic overviews, see here:
    For a video introduction, see here:


  4. Sacha permalink
    July 28, 2008 8:49 pm

    Very interesting post. You hit on one of the nasty truths about global inequality that is often deliberately ignored. The idea of rich having to get poorer is not the easiest argument to make.

    It’s also interesting how the two visual representations you use really lead to thinking about these issues in certain ways. It’s a good reminder of how the metaphors we use don’t just reflect what we already think. Sometimes it seems like focusing on this sort of imagery distracts from the ‘real’ issue, but it’s important.

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