11/11/2013 - 14:48

The poor, lighting their own way

Global consumption patterns are beginning to outstrip the planet's ability both to produce resources and to maintain climate balance—but so-called economic progress depends on the perpetuation of unsustainable consumption patterns. Meanwhile, consumption varies greatly among countries, with some nations characterized by dire poverty and others by resource-hogging wealth. This set of problems can only be aggravated by a model of development in which poor countries aspire to rich-world levels of consumption. What's needed instead is for overall consumption to be limited to levels consistent with the planet's capacity to sustain human life.

Consumption in rich countries clearly must decrease, but if that is to happen, consumers will have to understand the true costs of what they consume (costs that include carbon emissions). The economic system in the rich world fails miserably to communicate costs. Everything from the global trade regime to corporations' big marketing budgets agitates for more consumption. In the United States, to cite one example, handsets are replaced every 21 months on average—and consumer electronics are a major contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions. Worrisomely, consumption patterns in developing countries appear to be following trends established in the developed world. China, for instance, once known as the land of bicycles, has become the world's largest market for automobiles, and is paying the price in air pollution and traffic jams.

So high consumption does not represent the right path toward economic development and poverty eradication. But perhaps climate mitigation does represent such a path. Today's energy economy is largely centered on a few oil-producing countries and a few others with large stakes in refining, distribution, and so forth. If the global economic order depended on sustainable energy instead of fossil fuels, energy production would be broadly distributed and energy would be consumed close to where it is produced. This would eliminate many middlemen and speculators, allowing local control and creating local opportunities to improve living conditions. The widespread use of renewable energy technologies like solar pumps and lamps has a chance to transform the world's poor regions.

In Round Two, Pablo Solón argued strongly for global wealth redistribution (and also for more modest levels of consumption). But instead of redistribution, I favor the creation of opportunities for the poor to create their own wealth—as long as they can do it in sustainable ways. Yes, developed nations must cut their emissions, but it is also important that poor countries avoid the costly mistakes that rich countries have made. Sustainable (and often cheaper) energy systems are a key element of this.

Climate mitigation cannot be achieved through a single approach, but it can be informed by a single principle: the idea that energy use must be sustainable. At the national, regional, and global levels, measures should be put in place that communicate to consumers the true costs of the things they consume (though technological progress must not be impeded). Use of sustainable technologies like the good old-fashioned bicycle should be encouraged (even if some consumers perceive such policies as technological regression rather than progress). And local ownership of energy should be encouraged as well. Give poor people solar lamps and they will light their own way to prosperity.