Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
February 7, 2000
Fool's paradise about 'the good life'
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
In a recent column, the Toronto Star's economics editor David Crane waxed euphoric about the "good life" - the "spectacular progress in living standards over the past 100 years."
Citing a recent study by Stanford University economist Charles Jones, Crane argued that factors facilitating higher material standards of living include a rapid increase in population, improved nutrition, better education, improvement in institutions that promote innovation and the development of property rights - especially for inventors.
"It's well established that we are better off than 100 years ago not because we have the same goods and services as existed then," writes Crane, "but because we have new and more valuable goods and services that have generated major gains in productivity and living standards."
Crane clearly believes that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, as opposed to our forbears' existence 100 years ago or more when, as he paraphrases Thomas Hobbes, "for most of humanity, life was nasty, brutish and short, with virtually no gains in average living standards. Even by 1790, average per capita consumption in France was no greater than it had been during the days of the Roman Empire."
Now, everything Crane and Jones say here is true, but their enthusiastic boosterism of post-Industrial Revolution consumer technocracy conveniently ignores several uncomfortable but highly relevant issues.
These would include destruction of the environment and attendant problems like global warming, the thinning ozone layer, diminishing biodiversity, drought and erosion caused by deforestation, soil depletion and pollution of the ecosphere, to name just a few.
They also cast a blind eye to nascent exhaustion of natural resources needed to supply and maintain today's industrial production, let alone increase consumption in the underdeveloped world.
However, the most egregious omission from their analysis is that for much of the world's population living outside the consumer economies of the developed West, life is still nasty, brutish and short, and standards of living for many are declining - not improving.
Moreover, side effects and consequences of Western industrial prosperity are directly or indirectly responsible in large part for increasing quotients of misery in the three-quarters world.
For example, The Economist reports (Jan. 8) that about 47 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa's population subsists (so to speak) on less than US$1 per day, as do 40 per cent of South Asians, and 16 per cent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Economist also cites a survey by Canada's Environics International indicating that people in poorer countries are waking up to what environmental degradation is doing to them. Environics found that people in Mexico, China and Nigeria, for example, are more likely to base purchase decisions on environmental considerations than are consumers in France, Britain or Japan.
Crane does acknowledge the fact, if not the necessary implications, of the two most significant reasons why we are stressing the planet's capacities past their limits as we approach the 21st century, noting blithely that while in the millennium spanning from 200 BC to 800 AD world population grew only from 150 million to 265 million. By contrast, we entered this century with 1.6 billion people on earth, and will leave it next January with about 6.1 billion.
This apparently does not worry Crane.
Consumption-wise, in 2500 B.C., per capita consumption adjusted for today's dollars was about US$270. By 1900, after passage of 4,400 years, consumption had barely more than doubled to $603.
However, over the past 100 years per capita consumption has increased more than five-fold to an average of $3,116 - and many times that in the developed West. The world's richest 20 per cent possess 82.7 per cent of the world's wealth. The next 20 per cent have 11.7 per cent of the wealth. The remaining 60 per cent have only 5.6 per cent of the wealth.
These figures indicate to me that growth and consumption optimists are living in a fool's paradise, albeit a temporarily comfortable one. The status quo simply cannot be sustained, either ecologically or in terms of justice and fairness. We went into the 20th century with what was still a reasonably good planet to live on. We are leaving it with a planet that is seriously, and perhaps irreparably, damaged goods.
As David Ehrenfeld observes in his book The Arrogance of Humanism, "Cancer distills from our air and water. Ugliness and blight come after us like shadows which do not pass away. As our computers and communications get better and better, the less responsive, decent, or even coherent become the institutions that use them. And all this is denied, ignored or excused - anything to keep us from questioning our own ability to engineer a wise future."
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