Today's date:
Winter 2008

De-Industrializing Desire

Summer 2002

Critics of globalization argue that it marginalizes the majority while exacting too high a toll on the environment. "Sustainable development" is said to be the antidote to this state of affairs. If only the poor were let into the global economy and the rainforest left out the world would be a better place.

Yet, if more aid, debt relief and the opening of rich markets to the exports of the poor lead down the same path of industrial development that brought consumer democracies to their present prosperity, the Earth's resources will be exhausted, not sustained.

True as it is unjust, the fact remains that the poor majority may admire, envy or resent the rich, but to replicate their lifestyle would be ecocide. "Sustainability" may be compatible with "development" in the shifty realm of politics, but not within the natural limits of the biosphere.

The ecological imperative is, politically speaking, distinctly impractical: The consumer classes will have to downsize their appetites while the aspiring must de-industrialize their desires. To enhance well-being while bringing the Earth into balance, the globalized middle class will have to reduce their footprint while the advancing steps of the localized poor will have to become greener. And, much like the logic of nuclear non-proliferation, what the have-nots are willing to give up will rely entirely on whether the haves restrain themselves.

The point of convergence between these two is what the authors of the Heinrich Böll Foundation memo excerpted in this NPQ call "fair wealth in a fragile world."

Above all, write the authors, a new paradigm of development is required that secures "livelihood rights" rather than promotes an export-led strategy to reduce poverty. "Poverty," the authors write, "derives from a deficit of power rather than a lack of money. Far from being needy persons awaiting provisions, the poor must be seen as citizens who are constrained by lack of rights, entitlements, salaries and political leverage. Any attempt to mitigate poverty will have to be centered on a reinforcement of rights and opportunities. This is particularly true of women who are often legally marginalized.

"A livelihood-centered perspective," their argument continues, "is at odds with the export-led poverty-reduction strategies. A strategy of creating industrial jobs, which under the condition of a borderless economy must be competitive on the world market, is soon likely to run out of breath....Under a free trade regime, agriculture and industry in most countries of the South cannot be simultaneously competitive and job intensive." Rather than dream of the global consumer paradise they've glimpsed on the villlage TV, in other words, the poor must make do with a more ecologically benign local subsistence. No McDonald's, only lentil soup.

Is all this just pie in the ozone layer? Didn't China just join the World Trade Organization, thus mobilizing its billion people to gloriously pursue a refrigerator for every kitchen by making trinkets for Toys "R" Us and shoes for Sports Chalet? Absent the totalitarian fist, is it likely that the Chinese will give up the icebox and return to the small-is-beautiful backyard furnaces of Mao's Great Leap Forward—a policy they have spent the past four decades reversing?

Conversely, can the rich West succeed in portion control any more than the perpetually backsliding dieter? Outside the monastery, is there any case in history in which "homo economicus" has voluntarily sacrificed expectations of more?

Conceivably, as the authors suggest, underdevelopment might prove to be an asset that enables "leapfrogging" over capital-intensive infrastructure, toxic dumps, clogged roads and oil refineries to catch up with the post-industrial retreat from overdevelopment. By linking up people with information technology in a post-fossil fuel age, the quality of life can be enhanced without passing through the destructive stages of industrial development. Think of the "cell phone" ladies in Bangladesh who have become their own "utility" by purchasing a cell phone with microcredit, then selling calls in their villages.

Among the global consumer class, new technologies also promise to radically reduce wasteful inputs. For example, in the rich West, where petroleum is mainly a transportation fuel, hybrid cars will surely become cooler as terror related to the oil states of the Middle East heats up. Even before September 11, the former Saudi oil minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani warned that oil prices would plummet in the coming decades as consumers turn to hybrid technology. In the United States SUVs could well go the way of smoking.

How to jump-start the transition from development economics to livelihood politics is the historic calling of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in September.

Nitin Desai, the secretary general of that meeting, hopes that a new vision will emerge in Johannesburg that embraces neither the bottom-line globalization of "Davos Man" nor the rejectionist mentality of the " Porto Alegre" protestors.

During the age of superpower unilateralism, one should not expect too much from a United Nations conference. But if it even suggests a new direction for civilization that might bring fairness to this fragile world, then it is welcome indeed.