Nonetheless, Unavoidable Change Has Arrived

History sometimes brings such moments. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,” Abraham Lincoln said during another era whose status quo dissolved. “We must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew” (December 1, 1862, State of the Union Message to Congress).

Although this book focuses on developments and patterns in the U.S., overwhelming evidence indicates the same things are happening throughout the world; each country, of course, has its own cultural characteristics.

As “growth” reshapes other countries, people there, too, have started to worry it may be a false god–may create problems as difficult, painful and worrisome as those it seems to solve.

See, for example, Paul Becket, “In India, Doubts Gather over Rising Giant’s Course” (Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2011).

“The boom,” Becket reports,

has created huge wealth for the business elite and much better lives for hundreds of millions of people. But the benefits of growth still haven’t spread widely among India’s 1.2 billion residents. And a string of corruption scandals has exposed an embarrassing lack of effective governance… Ravi Venkatesan, until this week chairman of Microsoft Corp.’s India arm, says his nation is at a crossroads.

‘We could end up with a rather unstable society, as aspirations are increasing and those left behind are no longer content to live out their lives. You already see anger and expressions of it,” he says. ‘I strongly have a sense we’re at a tipping point: There is incredible opportunity but also dark forces.’… Calorie consumption by the bottom 50% of the population has been declining since 1987, according to the 2009-10 economic survey conducted by India’s Ministry of Finance, even as those at the top of society struggle with rising obesity. Mainly because of malnutrition, around 46% of children younger than 3 years old are too small for their age, according to UNICEF.”

One former prime minister of India warned, the story reports, about the “mindless and heartless consumerism we have borrowed from the affluent societies of the West.”

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Comments

Mayu says:

It may be that the United States, although far from perfection with its own institutions and inequalities, may be in a better position to redefine growth due to its tradition of democracy and relative prosperity.
Based on the report by Becket, India is still stuck on old notions of wealth and growth because they haven’t been able to reach the standards of living across the board for most people in their country which probably requires stronger institutions of democracy.
Does this mean that only developed democratic nations have the potential to end their addiction to current forms of economic growth?

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Several major possibilities exist:
1/ India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, and other not-yet-developed countries will follow the same pattern as the U.S. (and the West)–pursuing “growth” (as we now define it) up to a certain point, and then exploring other options (as we are doing in this book). This may be the most likely because something in human nature or our relationship with technology propels us towards materialism/consumerism; or, because (as you suggest) only a country that has become sufficiently wealthy (e.g. the U.S. now) can indulge in redefining wealth.
It is happening now, as evidenced for example, by the demand for automobiles, beef, etc. in these countries–and in subsequent projections of skyrocketing reliance fossil fuels. Celebration of Christmas–as a consumer/ gift-giving holiday unrelated to any religion– is growing increasingly popular in China; “Santa is a symbol of progress,” the Wall Street Journal reports (Tom Doctoroff, “What the Chinese Want,” May 19, 2012).
In this context, the enormity of what other countries face is difficult to over-estimate. India, for example has more than 400 million people who are illiterate (far more than the entire population of the U.S.) and half of the children in that country under age five are suffering from malnutrition.
2) The other option is that the developing world will not “follow” the West, but will learn from our mistakes, skip a few steps, and become “wealthy” by pursuing a more nuanced, humane definition of wealth. Evidence that this is happening (or will happen) is difficult to find.
Point to remember: not to romanticize poverty, but in terms of many things we in the U.S. now seek (e.g. a strong sense of community, families that stay together), “poor” (agricultural?) countries can be seen as far ahead of us.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

An article from China Daily, reprinted today (May 25, 2012) as an ad in the N.Y. Times demonstrates that people are well aware of the dangers and trade-offs associated with growth/progress: The city of Chengdu (“home of the giant panda”), the story reports, is fast-developing and modernizing, but it is also remaining “eco-friendly, garden like” and home of a “relaxing lifestyle.” The story’s headline: “Blending the ‘Slow Life’ and Rapid Growth.”

Thoughts?

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