In 2001, I had this exchange with James White, Director of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder:
Jon Lebkowsky: One point that John Firor makes is that with six billion people on earth, if everyone had the same standard of living that we [Americans] have, there's no way that we could sustain.
James White: Yes, that's very clear. I teach a course on energy. That's just one of the resources that you'd need, and if you do the calculations, we use thirty times the energy the average African does. We use ten to fifteen times the average energy that people do in general developing countries overall. We're 250 million, they're 6 billion people. You bring them all up to our standard of living, and the multiplication factor for energy, for aluminum, tin, lead, all the other resources we need is just enormous. It's probably on the order of a hundred, or something like that - I've never done the calculation. But there's no way that I could see that we could support six billion consumers of the American type, or even six billion consumers of the Western European type, and they use half the resources we do.
Since then, people I respect within Worldchanging have told me that this isn't the case. As the Worldchanging manifesto says, "another world is not just possible, it's here. We only need to put the pieces together."
In 2007, I think we have to start putting those pieces together in a more coherent way. What I'd like to see is a clear plan that explains how 6 billion people coexist on earth with a very high-quality standard of living. I want that plan to explain how to overcome the resource issues, and how to work through the political and distribution issues, to make that world possible. I want this to be more than a hopeful idea that fuels a lot of blog posts or a book like ours, which does include fragments of this kind of thinking. I think the biggest challenge here is coming up with, and describing effectively, a global political model that will support this kind of evolution.
One way to start on the energy and communication front is to tie solar into the cell phone system. Cell phones change everything in a developing country. They need batteries and recharging. A solar cell phone recharger that is affordable (probably around $10 US) would be a great way to extend the convenience and utility of the new wireless infrastructure.
Add the ability to charge AA and D batteries and you have an opportunity to build a solar micro-power system. Integrate hand-cranked or pedal-powered (stationary or bicycle-based) electrical generation and you increase the possibilities immensely. Now all you have to do is include the excess electrical generation capacity of existing automobiles and you're really talking.
Or perhaps that's just me, talking to myself.
Well said, Jon!
I agree with you and hope that also our debates on WC here can become less hopeful and more real. Relentless positivism isn't always helpful, if it means we don't face facts.
The real debate for me is 'what does quality of life mean?' - and where will the compromises be - not just on our consumerism, but on our social norms and practices.
Jon, if you google "Global Sustainable Peasantry" you'll see a bunch of work outlining my vision of how to do this, mostly in comments on WorldChanging articles.
also, http://howtolivewiki.com/hexayurt/ - click on the Pentagon Presentation, which is the slides I used when communicating some parts of that long term vision to the DOD in December. None of this is hard, or exotic, or requires any new technology. It can - and should - be done now, and at profit, to everybody involved's lasting benefit.
6 billion people did you say? Wait... you forgot the world population's growing rate. To me this is the most important problem we face: overpopulation. And yet, strangely, very few people think about ideas for reducing these numbers. Is it a taboo? Do we have to keep pretending that the Earth can feed us all... and more? How can we find ways to stop reproducing uncontrollably when the environment we live off is of limited capacity? What do we do when there is no more open space, no more wild animals or flowers, no more rain forests or oxygen? To restore the beauty of nature (ok, who cares about that, mmm) and its capacity to support us, the smartest addition to the animal kingdom by far, of yeah, we need to set the limits to our own population. Imagine a world with 5 times or ten times less humans? Any way to think about that? A world-wide program... aimed in priority at the most destructive populations? (that would be the energy-greedy US, and the other developed countries next, who pollute the rest of the world with no shame whatsoever...)