Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Is America becoming a third world country with first world emissions?

Arianna Huffington admits that asking if America is becoming a third world country is meant to be provocative, but she's clearly distressed by "a nation where the rich get richer, the middle class is in free fall, and the education system and infrastructure are crumbling." Her biggest distress is over the idea that "the American dream" - that our children will have a better life than we have - has vanished.

But what is a "better life?" I saw Ms. Huffington at the Economist Magazine's Innovation Summit, a portion of which focused on whether innovation will save us from the various global disasters that await us in areas such as disease, water, and of course climate change. The venue turned into shootout between optimists and pessimists, all of whom are well known and hyper-intelligent, over whether innovation is part of the problem or part of the solution.

Representing the pessimists were Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive and Paul Saffo, a Stanford-based futurist who once said, "There's less than a 50% chance that the United States will exist as a nation by the middle of this century. And that is actually the good news." Professor Diamond pointed out that unsustainable consumption rates will be our undoing, leading to growing inequality, resource scarcity, and climate related problems. The root cause of all this is our misperception that higher consumption rates equates to a higher standard of living. The Professor points out that much of Europe has been busy disproving this standard of living/consumption connection. The average per capita carbon footprint in Europe is less than half of that in the US, which seems to support this viewpoint.

This led one audience member to put the idea to Ms. Huffington that maybe the US should become a third world country.

On the other side of the debate were the optimistic technologists, lead by the prolific inventor Ray Kurzweil, who points to the dramatically increasing price-performance of phones and computers, to assert that innovation in solar energy, battery storage (and other areas such as water purification, hydroponic food production) will solve both scarcity and environmental issues long before they become critical. His underlying message is that we just need to produce and consume smarter, not less.

Both sides support the idea that the current energy and resource intensive industrial revolution is playing itself out. What's beyond it is less clear.

My seat neighbor (who turned out to be a well known CEO) and I got into a discussion at the break about the role of common sense. He mentioned that in China, firms such as Procter and Gamble are rethinking and redesigning their product lines both to accommodate the needs of Chinese households, and the resource base and ecological needs of the country. In a country where middle class is a relatively emerging idea, will it be created in a more pragmatic and sustainable fashion? From a climate perspective, there's no other viable option.

But back to the US....perhaps what's crumbling is not the middle class, but our definition of what middle class means. If the American Dream is about a better life for our kids, than maybe the focus of innovation should be on a more commonsensical definition of a better life. Cheap energy or clean energy? Big cars or reliable transportation systems? Better 'stuff' or better relationships?

The resistance to cap and trade and other flavors of climate legislation is primarily based on the notion that it will lead to a reduction in our standard of living. But that's a false choice. I like to think it's possible that we can innovate our way to a less consumption-heavy footprint that increases our standard of living. We'd have plenty left over for education and infrastructure.

Photo courtesy of the Economist Magazine. All rights reserved.

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