The Sustainability Seesaw
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.