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Can we all be rich?
Vinay Gupta, 1 Jul 04

Michael Lind, a commentator with unconventional views, suggests that a future population of nine billion people could all enjoy current first world standards of living without destroying the environment.

Providing stuff, space and speed to 9bn people without putting serious strains on the global environment is possible, but not inevitable. A planet of crowded slums, extreme inequality, devastated ecosystems and rising atmospheric temperatures is a frightening possibility. To avert such a future, campaigns for political and behavioural reform, at both the national and international level, will be necessary to supplement the development of new technology - no argument there. But political and moral campaigns should take the preferences of people into account and they should be based on sound reasoning. It makes no sense to counsel individuals and nations to adopt austerity in cases in which there are technological solutions to problems created by technology. Sometimes there really are technical fixes.

Lind also makes exellent points about costs of meat production and high intensity, high density land utilization.

Could everybody really have it all if we are good enough engineers? Buckminster Fuller thought so. What do you think?

From: The Marginal Revolution. We've discussed rich and poor futures before on WorldChanging.

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Comments

I love this line:

True greens should insist on labels: "No chickens were used in the manufacture of these drumsticks."

I think this article brings up some great reminders on how technology can help and hinder so we shouldn't be quick to damn it. Unfortunately "support your local lab" isn't as romantic a bumpersticker as "support your local butcher"

Definetly good to here some positive scenarios for the future.


Posted by: Michael Phoenix on 3 Jul 04

I like the premise BUT...

some things here are wrong.

Combined mass of human beings is close to 1 Gt, not 1 Mt, since it takes about 10 people to make a ton (but I am sure the mass of machines is now higher; I'm surprised that didn't happen long ago).

And he's right to latch on to energy issues first. Energy is key to prosperity. Worldwide energy intensity has changed little since 1900 (though energy use has shifted from country to country in that time, and some of the quantities that go into the various factors composing E.I. are a bit difficult to measure). For every $ of world income, it takes about 10 MJ, or 3 kWh of energy. If the world is to be wealthy with 9 billion people each having an income of $80,000+ (in 2000 dollars) on average, world energy use will need to increase more than a factor of 10, from the present. Where's all that energy going to come from?

At the Granada conference I just attended, one of the speakers opened his remarks with a question: name the world's top ten problems. Then a second question - of those problems, solving which one would solve the largest number of the others? The answer he got, and which he claims to receive every time he asks this question is the same one: energy.

The economic optimists always spout Lind's truism: "long before all fossil fuels were exhausted, their rising prices would compel industrial society not only to become more energy efficient but also to find alternative energy sources". This is true because it is a simple economic statement: rising fossil fuel prices will force investment in alternatives, inevitably.

But it is also seriously misleading, especially as a statement intended to inform policy. Should nations set specific policies to prepare for this transition? How sudden will the fossil fuel price rise be? Will any of the alternatives be capable of sustaining civilization at the level we have become accustomed to? How long will the alternatives take to ramp up? How disruptive will the transition be?

The economic optimist's statement answers none of these questions - rather it encourages a hazy disregard for the future, which will just naturally "take care of itself". Yes it will, but at what cost?

Anybody who seriously spends time looking at this issue of the need for an enormous ramp-up in our energy alternatives will, I believe, come to the same conclusion I have. There is a way, but it's a tough one, and it requires strong government investment starting now.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 4 Jul 04



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