Posts Tagged ‘Progress’

Consumption and the Limit to Resources

November 28, 2009

I will come back to what Michelle Obama has to do with this topic after I present the facts that are pertinent to the story. These facts are fairly well known but it was nice to find them described succinctly in Jared Diamond’s book (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) that I started to read again at the urging of Vinod.

Here is the essential statistic: on average, each citizen of the US, Western Europe, and Japan consumes about 32 times more resources and puts out 32 times more waste than do inhabitants of developing countries.

The leaders of all developing countries aspire to lift the living standard of their citizens to match those of the developed ones – the elites are already living at that level shaping the aspirations of the rest of the citizens. The East Asian countries have been growing rapidly over the last quarter century and the goal of the Indian government is to grow the economy at ten percent per year for the next twenty years.

Is this a feasible proposition? Diamond calculates that if every developing country citizen adopted the living standards of developed countries, the global impact in terms of resource use and waste generation would multiply by a factor of twelve. And he notes: “I have not met anyone who seriously argues that the world could support twelve times its current impact.”

People in the Third World aspire to First World living standards… Even in the most remote villages and refugee camps today, people know of the outside world. Third World citizens are encouraged in that aspiration by the First World and the United Nations development agencies, who hold out to them the prospect of achieving their dream if they will only adopt the right policies, like balancing their national budgets, investing in education and infrastructure, and so on.

But no one in First World governments is willing to acknowledge the dream’s impossibility: the unsustainability of a world in which the Third World’s large population were to reach and maintain current First World living standards…. Even if the human populations of the Third World did not exist, it would be impossible for the First World alone to maintain its present course, because it is not in a steady state but is depleting its own resources as well as those imported from the Third World… What will happen when it finally dawns on all those people in the Third World that current First World standards are unreachable for them, and that the First World refuses to abandon those standards for itself?

I thought of this as I heard the chatter surrounding the state dinner in Washington for Dr. Manmohan Singh. All the talk was about Michelle Obama’s ensemble that must have cost over $10,000 – it took over a dozen persons working more than twenty days under the supervision of a hotshot designer to the glitterati. In all likelihood, it would be worn just once. And then I imagined the prime minister’s wife taking out a sari she has probably worn before, and will wear again, tying up her hair as she does every day, and accompanying her husband to the White House. This is a huge contrast in living styles and standards – the opulence on one side not fazed by the deepest economic crisis for generations and over ten percent unemployment; the modesty on the other not dented by almost double digit growth for over a decade.

How will these trends play out in the future? My guess is that the First World is unlikely to abandon the lifestyle that it takes for granted. But would the billions in South and East Asia resist the temptation of emulating them? And, if not, would it be a fair outcome to the distribution of global resources.

Both presidents Obama and Hu Jintao are going to the Copenhagen climate talks with pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But this should not be mistaken for any intention to decrease the desired rates of economic growth. All it means is a commitment to be more efficient in the use of energy, i.e., to use less energy per unit of output – the output itself is not to be restrained. One can draw a parallel with the goal of increasing fuel efficiency of automobiles – by itself that is not enough to reduce the total amount of fuel used; the gains can be offset if the number of miles that automobiles are driven increases in proportion which has been the case to date.

Given this dilemma, do we have a choice not to question the notion of progress that we have taken for granted and that has become synonymous with the relentless growth of GDP? Instead of developed and developing societies, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss spoke of “hot” and “cold” societies. “The hot societies are the modern ones, driven by the demons of historical progress. The cold societies are the primitive ones, static, crystalline, harmonious. Utopia… would be a great lowering of the historical temperature [yielding] freedom in which man would finally be freed from the obligation to progress, and from the age-old curse which forced it to enslave men in order to make progress possible.”

Is there an alternative conceptualization of progress that could make everyone better off? Or, are we condemned to either accept an unfair distribution of global resources or to hurtle down the path of an inevitable confrontation?

The excerpt on Claude Levi-Strauss is from an essay by Susan Sontag, A Hero of Our Time, in the New York Review of Books, November 28, 1963.

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Is Faith Necessary for Progress?

November 16, 2008

The loss of religious faith (or deviation from the true path) is amongst the commonly cited reasons for the absence of economic or social progress in Pakistan. Is this another easy answer, a gross simplification of a complex reality, or does it capture some aspect of our predicament?

There are two components of this claim: faith and progress. Taken separately, they are relatively unproblematic. Most people consider progress to be good and a laudable goal for both individuals and societies. Faith is a matter of individual choice exercised freely.

It is the link between faith and progress that is controversial and in need of examination. I doubt if even diehard believers would suggest a one-to-one correspondence between the two because that would result in odd contradictions and unacceptable conclusions. Western countries are all more developed than Pakistan. Does that mean that their citizens are all more religiously upright than ours? If so, what then is the basis for condemning the West for its rejection of religion and its alleged loose morality?

There is also no logical reason for restricting the relationship between faith and progress to countries. It should apply just as well to individuals and regions within countries. Both applications would cast doubt on the proposition. In the case of individuals it is often lamented that success is inversely related to religious devotion. Within countries, some regions are more prosperous than others and cities are always more developed than rural areas. It would be absurd to claim that the people of Karachi are reaping the benefits of adhering to the true faith while Kohistanis are suffering because of a loss of faith. On the contrary, the believers of the theory are quite as likely to argue that cities are the seats of evil while rural areas remain the founts of faith.

Going even further, why should the equation not be applicable to activities like sports? Simply because it would be impossible to argue that the World Cup would be won by the team with the most religiously committed members. Pakistan’s rise and decline in cricket cannot be matched with any similar graph of religious purity. And the phenomenal improvement in China’s Olympic performance cannot be tied credibly to a concomitant increase in religious faith.

Such contradictions are not sufficient to challenge the veracity of the claim linking progress to faith. A more nuanced argument could be implied. Perhaps what is being stressed is that deviation from the true path alters our individual attitudes and behaviors and these in turn have negative effects on our collective output. For example, the weakening of religious belief could lead to increased corruption that could impede social and economic progress.

This is a serious proposition seemingly along the lines of Max Weber who argued that the Protestant work ethic was the major contributor to the rise and location of capitalist development. But Weber’s stress was on the work ethic implicit in Protestantism and not on the degree of religious belief in general. Thus, Weber could be interpreted to imply that Catholics, no matter how devout, would not have progressed as much because Catholicism lacked the work ethic of the Protestant faith.

By now it is more than obvious that corruption has an uneven relation to economic development and that the work ethic is independent of religious belief. It is commonly remarked that South Asians work much harder and more conscientiously in the Middle East and in the US than they do at home. The change does not arise from any sudden variation in the degree of faith. Rather, it is tied to the incentives that determine the nature of the effort offered by an individual and the accountability that ensures that what is promised is actually delivered.

A social and economic system that promotes productive activities and rewards effort would elicit a good work ethic and make progress possible. Perhaps we should interpret faith not in religious terms but as faith in the justness of social and economic arrangements. If people believe them to be fair, they would work hard to earn their rewards on earth. If they don’t, they would expect to be exploited and wait to go to heaven to find justice and equality.

It is reasonable to conclude that being the most devout competitor would not result in a gold medal. Being the best prepared, regardless of faith, would give one a fighting chance. The assurance that the judging would be fair would give one the motivation to try and the rewards of winning would provide the incentive. To the extent that a strong religious belief increases motivation and preparation, it can contribute to progress and achievement. But it is not essential to the equation. In theory, any arrangement with the right mix of incentives, equity and accountability should suffice.

The search for the causes of our underdevelopment in South Asia needs to continue.

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