A Prosperity Dilemma

By Michael Gerson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 16/01/08):

I often write about the scandal of global poverty and preventable disease.

But the crisis of the future will be a crisis of prosperity.

In 1975, about 2.5 billion people were at "medium human development" -- supplied with the basic necessities of life. Today, by the accounting of the United Nations, that figure exceeds 4 billion.

This, in many ways, is the world as we wished it. One of Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms was "freedom from want . . . everywhere in the world." And we have come closer to that goal than many would have predicted. Through most of history, poverty, squalor and early death were nearly universal outside the courts of kings -- expected and justified as part of the natural order. Now more than 2 billion people in China and India alone are becoming upwardly mobile consumers.

It is often recounted, in fits of prosperous self-hatred, that America has only 5 percent of the world population while consuming 30 percent of global resources. But this comparison is misunderstood. The rest of the world has been underconsuming, because too many have lived in poverty. That is now changing as Asia buys oil and cars and air conditioners -- and we should want it to change.

But this moral achievement creates strains and problems of its own.

The rising billions want to eat better, which means they eat more meat. By one estimate, average annual Chinese meat consumption has gone from 44 pounds in 1985 to 110 pounds today. And producing meat can take a lot of grain -- more than 8 pounds of feed to yield a pound of beef. At the same time, farmers are diverting more and more acres into the production of biofuels. So even as world food production increases, global food prices are quickly rising, causing recent food riots from Mexico to Uzbekistan to Senegal.

The rising billions want clean water for showers, dishwashers and washing machines, creating a groundwater crisis in much of the world. Mexico City and Shanghai have tapped so much groundwater that these cities are actually sinking. China environmental expert Elizabeth Economy noted recently in the journal Foreign Affairs that "two-thirds of China's approximately 660 cities have less water than they need and 110 of them suffer severe shortages."

And the rising billions consume lots of energy, causing trends that are obvious at the pump. Politicians sometimes blame oil companies for $3 a gallon gasoline. But it is mainly stagnant oil production and hundreds of millions of new drivers in Asia that have led to the current price spiral. This is not a temporary price spike; it is the long-term result of global prosperity.

To meet increasing demand for electricity, China is building about one coal-fired plant a week. It is also earning a number of environmental distinctions: the world's largest producer of carbon dioxide; the largest polluter of the Pacific Ocean; the largest importer of illegally logged timber. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, on some days, 25 percent of the particulates in the air over Los Angeles have come from China.

On global warming in particular, some activists hope that draconian government regulations can solve the problem -- but they won't. The Europeans and Japanese have found it difficult to meet even modest targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases. And were America to pass its own restrictions on carbon emissions, the direct effect would hardly be dramatic -- the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade proposal, by one estimate, would reduce projected global greenhouse emissions by about 1 percent.

And it will be even harder to get nations such as China and India to limit their coal-powered prosperity. It is transparently unfair when developed nations -- which had a century of their own, unmonitored Industrial Revolution -- lecture the rising billions on their unwashed development. "Most environmental issues," says Gregg Easterbrook of the Brookings Institution, "are produced by rising population and rising progress, and which of these do you propose to ban?"

Liberals need to understand that the eventual answer will come from technology -- ethanol from nonfood sources, dramatically increased automobile efficiency and coal-fired plants that can collect and store the carbon they produce.

Conservatives need to understand that there is a relationship between reasonable regulations and the development of technology. Right now, carbon emitters face no financial cost. A cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax would give businesses a financial incentive to invent new methods of trapping carbon -- technologies that could then be transferred to China and India.

Learning to live with global prosperity, it turns out, is difficult. But the rising billions would rather face these problems than extreme, unending poverty. For them, and for us, the crisis of prosperity is growing -- but it is still better than the alternative.