Tuesday, April 8, 2008
The top map is a cartogram showing equal areas per equal population, while the lower map is skewed for equal areas per equal GDP. (Via Resilience, the maps are by physicist Mark Newman who has plenty more on his homepage.)
Minor note: I wish Alaska weren't so emphasized in the second map. I am sure that isn't meant to break it down by state; it's misleading because it just takes the eye off the total hugeness of the USA relative to its population.
Now, is the above situation OK? On the conventional capitalist model, yes, certainly. The more developed countries have had the skill and persistence to "grow" and deserve their wealth. Such growth is not intrinsically limited, nor is it any sort of a zero sum game. We are happy to help others "grow" as well, although those of us in dominant positions, you understand, will do what we can to stay "ahead" of the "game" which "everybody wins, but some win more than others". This view is the key to western optimism, and that in turn is the key to the massive denial about limits to growth, about which, after all, we were duly warned almost fifty (correction, almost forty) years ago to essentially no effect beyond the briefest media splash. (Always a trendwatcher, I still own a contemporaneous paperback edition. Call me a creature of fashion.)
If you have limits to growth, though, the everybody wins game simply goes away, and any mismatch between the population shapes and the wealth shapes is hard to defend on moral grounds. The closer we are to the maximum sustainable wealth of the planet, the closer we get to a zero sum game. Accordingly, if we are close to that limit, any outcome other than, basically, white people getting less wealthy, is unsustainable without imperialism. Even if you believed in the growth game in the past, where you are happy to give your neighbor a hand so long as you stay ahead, you can't believe in it anymore once you hit limits. Post-growth, it's just a matter of holding on to your share, even if it's much bigger than the next fellow's, or else figuring out how to let go.
Well, many of us are seeing limits popping up all over the place. Yet business proceeds in as near a usual fashion as it can manage. Can this have anything to do with the presidential candidates' reluctance to talk about science? Telling the truth, it appears, is political suicide. Best to stay as far from numbers as possible. The idea "maybe we can aim for about a sixth of your current impact on the earth, if we are all smart and lucky" is not, really, likely to be a big seller. So we in the west lead the rest of the world off the cliff, unwilling to take note of the fact that there is no more material wealth to be discovered, no more new frontier to settle.
A change is going to come. What change is the question. People are always saying the poor countries are the most vulnerable but I think that may not be exactly correct.
Posted by Michael Tobis at 9:35 PM