Thursday, June 23, 2011

Does development stimulate cooperation?

A common assumption is that development is good because with longevity comes care for the future.  Tim Flannery makes this point in his recent book, Here on Earth:  A Natural History of the Planet.  He argues that future discounting, the propensity to take what you can get now, even when offered that plus some interest at some point in the future, is more common in the poor, and disenfranchised who have a relatively lesser chance of living to the future and actually getting that interest.  Thus, by helping the poor, the sick and those without, we increase the population size of those that should care about taking care of the Earth. 

Indeed, what’s called the ‘demographic transition’--where a society goes from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates—is associated with a suite of development-related traits—education (particularly for women), increased life expectancy, increased financial security, and, the zinger—increased consumerism.

Here’s a hard thought that harkens back to Ehrlich and Holdren’s I = PAT equation:  with greater affluence comes greater impact.  Thus, do we really think that development will reduce future discounting and increase the likelihood of more people cooperating to solve the Earth’s problems, as Flannery argues, or will those people be more likely to (naturally) consume more and become a greater part of the problem? 

A few examples of the latter include China, India, and Brazil:  three examples of 'successful' development, but also examples of increasing industrialized societies that as a consequence of development are having a greater, not lesser, impact on Earth.

I’m not arguing against development:  I want more people to have greater economic security around the world.  But, I do think that it’s naïve to believe that development will necessarily lead to a more cooperative society that will inevitably be more predisposed to solve our environmental problems. 
Cooperation must be nurtured with incentives and regulated with punishment.  And we have to work hard to cooperate; time may be running out to take control of some scary environmental challenges. 

Discussion questions:  What do you think?  How do we rationalize helping others develop and have a better life (good things!) when this means that their ecological footprint is very likely to increase?

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