14 May 2004

Affluence, consumption and sustainable development

Here are two quite different interpretations of the relationship between affluence and consumption. First this from The Akha Heritage Foundation:
It is not difficult to show that Americans use a disproportionate share of the earth's resources. From the perspective of people living in the poorer countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, most Americans consume enormous quantities of all sorts of things: energy, metals, minerals, forest products, fish, grains, meat, and even fresh water. Compared with the average citizen of Bangladesh, for example, Americans on average consume 106 times as much commercial energy.

When we look at the world as a whole, we can see that our country is responsible for a lopsided share of the total consumption of key products and materials. We use one-third of the world's paper, despite representing just 5 percent of the world's population. Similarly, we use 25 percent of the oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper.

And then this from the Acton Institute:
Affluent people want cleaner air and are willing and able to pay for it. They begin to demand clean rivers for both health and aesthetic reasons. Affluence affords a person respite from the tyranny of scrambling to do whatever it takes to survive, and in that respite a person has the opportunity to contemplate how his or her actions affect the human society and the planet in general and to make any reforms necessary to discontinue or prevent any derivation from the responsibility to be biblical humanitarians and stewards.

Most of the Third World is currently in the most polluting phase of the industrialization process, a phase that the First World is leaving behind. Dr. Bjorn Lomborg’s widely publicized book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, has been fiercely condemned by eco-groups, but they have not been able to shake his key point: An objective analysis of the world’s available eco-data shows virtually all of the First World environmental trends are virtuous. This creates a strong argument that affluence has moral potential after all, that the best thing we could do for the environment is to make the Third World more affluent.

So who's right? Are the advanced postindustrial economies of Europe, North America and an increasing number of east Asian countries to be judged better or worse with respect to their stewardship of God's earth?

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