A World Astir|Jul 11, 2008 10:22 AM| by:

The American Dream Turned Nightmare

The ecological crisis facing humanity today is made of four factors or challenges: Economic Growth, Energy, Population and Lifestyle.

Economic growth is a legitimate need for the poorer sections of humanity. But for the rich nations continued economic growth, at the present rate, is an unjustifiable and ecologically unviable greed. However, whether it is driven by the Need of the poor or Greed of the rich, the economic engine consumes energy and resources which are limited and emits wastes which are harmful to the environment. And the problem assumes alarming proportions when the quantity of energy-and-resource-consuming and polluting population grows and doubles by the twenty-first century. As a UN study on the energy requirement of the millennium describes the magnitude of the problem:

“The task of making energy available to the bulk of the people in the developing countries at prices they can cope with is certainly large. Still bigger is the task of providing clean energy to the developing countries as well as the industrialised nations and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. And when we think that the world population is expected to double by the end of the twenty-first century, the task at hand for the people of the world is certainly such that many wonder how it can be met”.(1)

Renewable and green energy like solar energy are not yet commercially competitive with conventional fuels like coal and oil. Until this happens, we have to depend mainly on non-renewable energy resources which will pollute the environment. Other green initiatives like emission control and more efficient utilisation of fuels are not likely to have any substantial impact on the environmental situation as long as toxin-emitting transportation like cars or planes increases in quantity, volume and intensity every year with rapid economic growth. As environmentalist Wolfgung Sachs of Weppertal Institute for Climate, Energy and Environment in Germany, points out:

“Let me take a simple example. It is obvious in the last 20 years, the fuel efficiency of cars have grown enormously. Nevertheless the problem of cars is far from being solved. Because while efficiency grew, the number of cars and the power of cars also grew and kilometers travelled have increased. We achieve efficiency but, at the same time the gains achieved have been eaten up by continuous growth.”(2)

However the adverse impact of population growth on the environment is not of the same degree or magnitude in the poor and rich nations because the per capita consumption of energy and resources, and also per capita pollution is much greater among the rich nations than in the poorer nations. In other words, per capita damage done to environment is much greater by the rich than by the poor which means the rich nations are much more responsible for the present ecological condition of our planet than the poorer countries. According to environmentalist George Monbiot, the greatest environmental problem of the present century will be neither poverty nor population but the economic growth driven by the greed of the rich or in other words over consumption of finite resources by the unsustainable lifestyle of the rich. The human population on earth, according to a UN study, may rise roughly by 50% and get stabilized at 10 billion by 2200. But a research study by the Imperial College in UK has found that if the present trend of economic growth by three percent every year, especially in rich countries, continues, then global consumption of resources will increase by 1600 percent by 2100. This means as Monbiat concludes: “As the resources are finite—it is not hard to see that the rising economic activity is the immediate and overwhelming threat.”(3)

So, as the rich nations cling to their over consumptive and greedy lifestyle of multiplying wants, and the poorer nations aspire for and achieve a similar lifestyle, consuming energy and resources and polluting the environment on the same scale as the rich, environmental threat assumes nightmarish proportions. As we mentioned earlier, at present rich nations inflict greater damage to the environment than poorer nations. A recent study conducted by National Geographic Society places Indians, Chinese and Brazilians at the top of the list of eco-friendly consumers, with Americans coming at the bottom of the list. But the situation may change as the economic growth in these developing nations accelerates at a fast pace in the same patterns as the rich nations.

Here comes the disturbing element in the emerging fast-growing economies like India and China. As the increasing middle class population in developing economies like India and China follow the western type of consumption, buying more cars, travelling more and getting more and more globalised, it poses a serious threat to their environment. For example, in China some thirty thousand new cars were being added to the roads in Beijing, every month. And the environmentalists in China are very much worried. Pan Yue, the country’s deputy environmental minister told a German magazine that the country’s economic miracle “will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. Five of the most polluted cities worldwide are in China; acid rain is falling in one third of our territory; half of the water in China’s largest rivers is completely useless.”(4) So as Globalisation spreads the American Dream of unending material prosperity to other nations, it has ominous implications for environment. As the American journalist, Milton Friedman states:

“The Great Chinese Dream, like the Great Indian Dream, the Great Russian Dream and the Great American Dream is built around a high-energy, high electricity, high-bent-metal lifestyle. To put it in another way, the thirty thousand new cars a month in Beijing and the cloud of haze that envelops the city on so many days, all testify to the environmental destruction that could arise…if clean alternative renewable energies are not developed soon.”(5)

Globalisation adds one more twist to the problem. The process of globalisation involves outsourcing of corporate functions, for example, a product may be designed in India, manufactured in China and assembled in America. This process increases the transportation intensity of the product. As environmentalist Wolfgang Sachs explains, the transportation intensity of a container of yoghurt in Germany, which is made of strawberries from Poland, colour from Holland, plastic container from somewhere else, is 9000km! And increase of transportation, when it is powered by fossil fuels like diesel or petrol, adds to the environmentally destructive carbon in the atmosphere.

So, as an African diplomat said, has the American dream become the world’s nightmare? Is there a remedy? The problem has to be tackled on many fronts. The remedy may be broadly classified into three categories: first is the institutional intervention through environmental education, law, regulation, green activism, work of NGOs, balancing ecology with economics and poverty-eradication; second is the technological solution through green energy and green technologies; third is the cultural and evolutionary solution through growth in consciousness. These three solutions are not mutually exclusive but can be pursued simultaneously. However, in the integral perspective, a lasting solution to the problem lies in the evolutionary approach. We will discuss these solutions in greater detail in our subsequent articles.

1. Igvar B. Friddlefisson, Energy Requirement for New Millenniums, Human Development and the Environment, p.223
2. Wolfgang Sachs, Rethinking Growth, The Challenge of Balance, pp.363-66’
3. Will Mckebben, The Great Leap, Reader’s Digest, April, 2007.
4. Indians are World’s Greenest Consumers, The Hindu, May 5, 2008.
5. Milton Friedman, The World is Flat, pp.408



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