Possible global standard of living?

When we arrived in Argentina, my wife said after a couple of days: “I have come to terms with the fact that our (first-world) standard of living for the entire world is impossible to achieve. But what standard is possible? Argentina’s?”

As I told her, I am actually convinced that the assumption about the first-world-standards is wrong. I am also convinced that the current instantiation of those standards cannot be achieved for everyone but also that it cannot be maintained for the population of the so-called first world, and that it’s furthermore not desirable to try.

The most obvious example of this is the private automobile with internal combustion engine. If the entire world would use one car per family (which is less than the US, and, from our impressions here, Argentine populations do), we’d burn too much oil. This stuff becomes harder to get out of the ground and there are better uses than just burning it. Also, we already have too adverse effects on the climate with the amount of such cars that are driving around, hence the maintenance problem.

It’s unclear to me whether electric cars could circumvent the pollution problem. There was a piece in IEEE last year that argued they couldn’t, and the amount and kind of materials that are currently needed in constructing electric cars makes me believe that this is not a solution. In addition to this, I am far from convinced that private motorized transportation is a good idea in the first place. Instead, I’d assume that the best solution, in terms of efficiency, pollution, flow of traffic, amount of accidents, noise etc is public transport using electrical engines. I.e. buses, trams, and metros in cities, trains between them. And I seriously don’t see why those couldn’t be constructed on a global scale, especially if the construction of private motorized means of transport, and of the roads they need, is stopped.

I think a similar, if maybe less obvious, argument can be made w.r.t. food. The current standard of living for a lot of Europeans (and fewer but still sizable amounts of North Americans) includes the consumption of large amounts of meat (should that be desired), dairy, fresh fruit and vegetables, often exotic ones, coffee, and chocolate. Producing beef and cow milk based dairy is rather harsh on the environment in all kinds of way.
So scaling this up globally won’t work. This is in particular the case if one is opposed to factory farming with its overuse of antibiotics, since the current first-world solution consists in part of outsourcing meat production to other countries. This is even more so the case for much of the exotic fruits, and essentially all of the coffee and chocolate we consume.

But there’s no reason why moving to a less meat heavy diet, and one in which consumption of fruits and vegetables is largely confined to those that grow easily (and efficiently) in the climate where one resides wouldn’t make it possible to scale up a complete and healthy diet to the full population of the planet. I recently had a discussion with a vegan facebook contact of mine about the health risks of meat consumption (tldr: there seem to be none, as long as it is consumed in moderation, and the meat is ideally non-beef and non-processed), and I was fascinated by the fact that 100 grams of meat per day or even a kilogram per week was bsically considered “normal”. In comparison, due in part of my wife having read Eating Animals, we are probably more at 100 grams per week, although we still consume rather much fish and dairy. Anecdotally, this shows that it would be possible (without depriving oneself of eating pleasure and without negative health effects) to cut the first world’s meat consumption significantly.
Similarly, while I drink much coffee, there is no good reason why coffee should not be a thing of pleasure, instead of a continuous stimulation, at least if one sleeps enough and doesn’t work brutal hours. The same holds for chocolate, and once all the land given to cash crops of all kind (which includes soy beans for animal feed, and grain for ethanol fuel production) is repurposed for food production, “feeding the world” would become much easier. This is not to say that there might not still be food grown that is consumed somewhere else, since there are countries that might simply lack the arable land to support their populations, and since there might be food that is not consumed in the areas it’s being grown. So trade might still be possible but pure cash crops, only grown for export? Not so much.

There are other more-or-less obvious points, such as the replacement of flights by VoIP and video conferencing for business (and scientific) meetings. In fact, flying for any stays of less than a week (or in place of let’s say a six hour high-speed train ride) would probably have to go. Also water and energy consumption patterns in the industrialized world would have to change, e.g. private swimming pools and watering of decorative hotel lawns, or the construction of relatively small houses that have four exterior walls.

So to re-iterate my point, the current way of living in the “first world” is inefficient and wasteful and cannot be scaled up globally, which also means that this holds very much for the Argentine way. But that this particular version doesn’t scale up doesn’t mean none other will, although you will hear this claim (or the flipside of it that we’d have to vastly reduce our standard of living if we wanna improve others’) from those that stand to make a killing on the status quo.
I am convinced that the modifications necessary to scale it up are not so severe that they would justify speaking about a lower standard of living. Most of what we’d need to give up are luxuries. While I’d miss being able to prepare curries with coconut milk, or grabbing bananas when I feel like it, this is not the essence of what makes up our high standard of living. Affordable shelter, varied healthy diets, clean water, good free health care and education, access to information and culture, all this stuff is what makes our standard of living “first world”.

Incidentally, interesting how all of those are being worsened even while the non-sustainable model is pushed on the rest of the world.

The elephant in the room is of course that this will need aggressive government interventions, and much international cooperation.

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This entry was posted in anthropogenic climate change, developed countries, environmental sustainability, Real resources, standards of living. Bookmark the permalink.

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