Viewing sustainable development as a two-way street is an important way to foster a true global village, one in which people are able to maintain their cultural identities while partaking in global flows of information, trade, finance and ideas. The problem, however, is how to get people onto this two-way street. In other words, what are the on-ramps, especially for those that are currently poor?I think an important on-ramp to the two way street is green job creation. This is something that Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland has pointed out numerous times.
Things Must Get Better Before They Get Better?
America certainly has its poor, and they can’t care about polar ice caps, deforestation and slums in Cairo until they have met their lower-order needs of job/fiscal security, safety and so on. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenback, in their provocative book “From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility,” point out that the traditional environmentalist view is that things will have to get a lot worse before they get better-in other words, once environmental problems become so visible as to be impossible to ignore, the rational response will be for people to take action. They argue, however, that things with have to get a lot better before they get better. Why? Because only then can people contemplate the larger picture of how their actions correspond to global issues such as poverty and climate change.
Even Better: Things Get Better As They Get Better!
However, I think their perspective needs to be tweaked as well. I would say: things have to get better as they are getting better! In other words, we need to completely rethink development, poverty alleviation, and so on, by envisioning them as opportunities to bypass the kind of silly development we underwent in the U.S. It is often pointed out by Kurt Teichert that cities in the U.S. in the 60’s looked a lot like cities in many developing countries today. The reason U.S. cities today are relatively clean, according to Norhaus and Shellenback, is that the U.S. experienced a boom in prosperity between the 40’s and 70’s, and THAT is what led to the clean air and water acts.
This reminds me a lot of the great book Freakonomics. One of the more intriguing arguments in that book is that crime rates were not reduced in New York City in the 90’s thanks to better police enforcement (though that helped), rather, crime rates were reduced due to the Roe V Wade decision! Why? Because Roe V Wade prevented a lot of unwanted pregnancies; those children would have come of age around the time that the crime rates started to drop in NY and around the country. There is a strong parallel between the argument that environmental laws were passed in the 70s because Americans had gotten wealthier, and the argument that crime rates dropped in the early 90s because Roe V Wade prevented millions of unwanted pregnancies.I bring all this up because I think it is possible to view development much like Thomas Kuhn views scientific advancement in “THe Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” He points out that rather than being linear, science is actual non-linear in how it advances knowledge: scientists struggle with a problem, apparently making small, incremental advances, until there is a sudden boom that wipes away the previous way of thinking.
Can we view development in the same way? Years of spinning our wheels, coming up with a few success stories here and there, and then boom, an Einstein appears and we find a way to rapidly scale up open source development by engaging the entire world community to deal with climate change and poverty in one fell swoop. Sound ambitious? The way we thought about the world before Einstein seems quaint compared to how we view it now. I’m not proposing a revolutionary scientific theory; I’m simply talking about a different perspective on development, a perspective that echos Martin Luther King in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” In it, he blasts those that were asking blacks to be patient when they were dying and suffering; and so I say, how dare we be patient about poverty, injustice, dirty water, dirty air and deforestation?
We Cannot Be Patient When It Comes to Injustice
Things have to get better as they get better because we cannot justify 4 billion people in the world living on less than $2 a day, and we cannot sustain 4 billion people becoming wealthy unless they do so in a completely new way. So we have a situation in which we must bring people out of poverty, and we must do so in a beautiful, just, equitable, sustainable manner. Hence the idea of things getting better as they get better.The two-way street model of sustainable development ensures a fair process in which the needs of the users is taken into account more than the prejudices of the donors. I will continue clarifying these rambling, chaotic thoughts in the weeks, months and years to come, as I work to bring my ideals to life through my work, my writings and my actions.