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April 01, 2007


Todd Lester

I think China, Brazil and some African countries are coining and defining their own grand narratives... and perhaps de-centering others in the process. Development, like civilization, progress and modernity/-ization before and concurrent w/ it has had western-controlled media as its biggest cheerleader. Development as an exogenous - and thus intervening - process, has as one of its flaws the tendency to co-opt citizens in its focus area in a way similar to Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and other examples on cycles of vulnerability. In the same way that I reeled - and joined in the excitement - when my hometown of Nashville was co-opted to receive the Houston Oilers by building it a new stadium (w/ $ 300 million pricetag), I suspect that the intervention and accompanying imagery of economic might as pertains to the development industry can have the effect of imbibing recipient groups to the point of coercion.

May he rest in peace, but I think Baudrillard framed it best when he spoke of America's artificial centrality. Basically, I think the consumerism referenced wasn't/isn't so much an 'American' construct as it was/is an imperial moment in history during which the US centers its zero sum game in an era of hyper-reality.

Lockey White

In the part of the U.S. that I am in right now (Eugene, Oregon) "American style consumerism" is being re-defined in a big way. Really great eco-groovy sustainably-minded businesses and income-generation ideas are popping up like mushrooms here and in many parts of the United States. There is a huge demand for it.

It seems to me that many Americans are really starting to wake up and see that they can live well and consume less and their life will be better and less stressful and complicated for it. Of course there is still a heck of a lot of work to do (I can't walk a block without seeing an oversized vehicle driving along), but so far I think "alternative" businesses in the United States (e.g. organic agriculture, recycled goods, biodiesal pumps, and nontoxic household products) have proven that they actually make real profits while helping people to consume less resources and live better, healthier lives.

So I guess the real question is whether or not countries that aspire to "American-style consumerism" are looking at the modern trends away from a mindless "more is better" attitude and towards a more mindful quality over quantity approach, rather than at the stereotype for American consumerism during the last fifty years.

Perhaps consumerism trends parallel demographic transition. As with population growth, economic development causes consumption to peak way high initially and then stabilize at a more manageable level. (Anyone have any numbers that support or refute this theory?) At first those who have longed for a better life might really go crazy when they are in a position to be real consumers. One analogy is someone being hungry and barely consuming anything because of poverty and then sitting at an all you can eat buffet and eating themselves sick. Eventually they will realize that it makes little sense to gorge and then stabilize their food consumption at a resonable level, and they feel better physically for it.

The best thing we can do for people who aspire to live well is to help them pass through the crazy mindless consumption phase of economic development a quickly as possible so they can come out on the other side and live well but also live sustainably. Key to this will be support for innovation and technology transfer in the area of sustainable technologies and improved efficiency for existing technology. No one wants to be told that they can't live as well as the next person. I think our goal needs to be to ensure that everyone can live well and do so sustainably. I'd love to hear from the others in the group about whether or not they think this is possible.

Andrew Yang

Wow, Todd starting off the discussion by quoting Freire and Baudrillard on us? Good stuff, but I’m not so sure that mass consumerism is an American ideological imposition on the rest of the world. And I don’t think the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and those in Dubai would see it that way either. Populations simply want materially comfortable lives, just as states desire the social stability, fat tax coffers and international strength that come with affluence. (Todd, forgive me if that’s not what you meant – your point was probably much more subtle than that, and I’d appreciate clarifications). But this also gets into the “ideology of development” theme, and that’s coming up next, so we can talk about it some more.

I think Lockey makes a really interesting point – that rather than telling other countries that they need to slow down their growth to save the Earth, we can help them get rich AND realize the limited quality consumption can bring to their lives. It is, after all, a curious argument that the US, with the largest ecological footprint of all, will not make drastic commitments until the biggest emerging markets agree to the “sacrifices” first.

At the same time, some countries are discovering for themselves the price of environmental neglect. China in some ways is ahead of the US, such as in regulating car emissions. The communist leadership is well aware that the bubbling social unrest it is losing so much sleep over is intimately connected to the destruction of human habitats. What is more, pollution and toxic wastes have an inconvenient habit of crossing borders and provoking tensions with neighboring countries, such as the chemical spill incident on the China-Russia border. So this is at least one indication that the “grow rich” – “over-consume” – “calm down and stabilize” process Lockey brought up may not be a linear one, and in a good way.

But the real outrage is not that development hasn’t universalized the “consumer society.” We can’t even aspire towards that goal when around 2/3 of the world still lives in poverty, and an estimated three million people each year still die from preventable diseases, not to mention the astounding number of children killed by something as innocuous-sounding as “cooking smoke”… the list goes on.

A question is there, of course, about whether the eradication of these injustices can happen without those societies becoming well-off economies themselves, with all the attendant malaise we associate with our own gluttonous world. After all, the greatest poverty-reduction juggernauts we’ve seen since WWII have been Asia’s market economies… if this is true, then I’m coming back to agreeing with Lockey that, yes, maybe the first step is still that good old, unbridled, hyper GDP growth?


Going right to the question: Is the prospect of American-style consumer societies in China, India, Brazil, and Africa - an (1) ostensible goal of international development – a (2) realistic, or even (3) desirable, goal? After reading my friends´ interesting posts, I would still say 1) no, 2) no and 3) no (?)

1) In theory at least, the public global development agenda does not put the emphasis on economic growth per se and the “American model”, but on various other factors. The more official development document rights now is the Millennium Declaration which speaks more about distribution of resources than increasing resources: a great deal about gender: allocation of public budgets to improve maternal health and gender equality or universal primary education; and basic *globals* such as health and the environment. Overarching these goals is the commitment to Partner for Development. I really do think we need to gain awareness on what governments (as a governance group - the only one we have at least) say and sign to push the changes we want forward…

To sum up, consumerism-based development is not (at least in theory) the goal of international development. However, it may be the goal of national development plans, (by sovereign governments). And thus, the question can be framed – do governments and citizens have a right to development and to whatever development model they wish to pursue, or there are some limitations (exogenous legal or ethical borders) that they should respect?

2) "American consumer-style societies" is not a realistic goal because it is not real. It will never be American – style consumerism because it never was (on this one, I very much agree with Andrew); and it cannot happen because each society has its own singularities.

3) It is not desirable to me.. but who I am to decide what is desirable to others? And who or what forum is good to say what is “internationally” desirable? I suspect this debate has never taken place as such at the international level, and the closest and most recent is the before mentioned Millennium Declaration (most authoritative document to me). Letting people go through the process of consumerism and realizing by themselves (and learning what happiness is all about perhaps?)…. Lockey´s comments have often been in my mind except that I am not so sure about the outcome… not so sure we can know, anticipate or control how others will feel and want… I have met so many people who do not care the least about the color of the trees or even the color of the sky… and we need to respect that unless it hurts us or affects our personal spheres (or rights). Again, the issue of limitations… although, even at the international level, I suspect there are more mechanisms in place than we think to establish limitations and to constraint governments. Then the recurrent problem is of compliance and international watchdogs. That is where, I believe, societies need to Develop – both at the international and national levels.

Aleksander Zidansek

I believe that focus on knowledge and education is necessary to overcome the challenges posed by consumerism, demographic change, urbanisation and a shrinking and aging population, and that knowledge based sustainable society should be built as an answer to these challenges.

Basically there are two extreme types of solutions for such challenges (and of course many in between the extremes):
- plan everything and impose administrative sanctions for undesirable individual behaviour
- leave people complete freedom to make any choices they think will be beneficial for them

Obviously the rational solution should be outside both extremes. An important part of this solution is however always knowledge. If people don't know what to do, they will make bad choices. If teachers don't have knowledge, the quality of education will be poor, and also the next generation won't have knowledge. High level of knowledge therefore stimulates education on one hand and technological development on the other, while it also enables creative solutions to societal challenges that would otherwise not exist.

An example can be seen in the approach to clean energy technologies. The first extreme might here be represented by the idea that international agreement will specify for each country how much greenhouse gas emissions they are allowed to produce. The second extreme is that nothing needs to be done, and that everyone behave as they please. The knowledge based solution might be the development on new clean energy technologies (e.g. solar, wind, ITER, hydrogen producing bacteria etc.), so that energy from one of these sources becomes cheaper than energy from oil and coal.

Of course it is much easier to talk about knowledge based solutions, than to actually bring them into daily practice. Even hard core economists have calculated that investments in research are beneficial to society, because the side effects in form of creative ideas from educated individuals, inventions and innovations actually create very high degree of return on investment, so that invesments are returned to society on the average in less than two years. Studies have shown that investment in R&D is very profitable to the society. Social return on R&D spending is in the range from 50% to 105% (66% as an average of 8 different studies) which is much higher than the average rate of return on private R&D spending 24% (Jones and Williams, 1998). This means that in addition to the profit of the company financing R&D (24%) there is almost twice as much profit to the rest of the society (42% on the average). Results of Jones and Williams' study do not provide any indication that marginal returns for the U.S. R&D spending drop anywhere close to the cost of capital. This leads to a conclusion that probably even large R&D spenders like USA should increase their spending by two to four times (Jones and Williams, 1998). It also seems obvious that countries with high degree of poverty spend very little for knowledge and education, which further perpetuates the poverty. I think ideas like 100$ laptop for every child are excellent steps toward the long term solution.

In order to achieve knowledge based sustainable society I would strongly recommend that information on benefits of investments into knowledge is presented to decision makers in as many different forms as necessary (the above mentioned study of Jones and Williams is obviously an excellent example for politicians and CEO's) until they grasp the idea and realize that it is possible to demostrate measurable results already within their terms. This could significantly strengthen the processes of building the knowledge based sustainable society.

Jones and Williams, 1998: Jones, Charles I. and Williams, John C. : "Measuring the social return to R&D". In : The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1998, vol.113, no.4, pp.1119-1135.

Lockey White

What great comments! Wow, wow, wow. Keep them coming! What a great use of our collective intellect. I think there is a consensus so far that there are new and much more desirable business and development models emerging and the knowledge economy is a big part of that. Alternative, low or no impact, knowledge-based business models have shown to have high profit margins and growth rates. It's amazing any investors ever think in bricks and morter terms anymore. But physical development and infrastructure is still lacking and essential for quality living in many places of the world. If I don't have a clean glass of water, I might trade my $100 laptop for one if I am desperate enough. The neat thing about pure knowledge as a resource, is that when you share it, it only multiplies rather than diminishes.

Andrew Yang

Beatriz's response to the question - that intl development's official goal is not growth or a host of "consumer societies," but MDG and resource distribution, got me thinking: why is the debate over what the official development doctrine is important? And how should we let that influence our discussion? I see it like this: It’s definitely an important reference point to know what the most powerful actors (Governments, UN) are trying to accomplish. Bearing that in mind, we as a “young generation,” and hence not beholden to their ideologies, can then try to articulate for ourselves a set of principles, visions and practices that may or may not be radically different: the “new business models that Lockey mentioned,” Alex’s argument for knowledge-driven development, or Beatriz’s points about national and global compliance mechanisms and watchdogs… etc.

If any of you see a different role for our discussions, please share it early in this process!

With that said, I will share with you a couple of things:

- Related to Alex’s point about knowledge: My project is sending teams out around the world – teams made up of our consultants and the staff of aid organizations operating locally – to engage people in open-ended conversations about international assistance (humanitarian and development, mostly). Because it’s “open-ended,” they decide what they want to tell us about (rather than “yes, we did get the blanket and the rice”). We’ve done 7 countries, and will have over 15 by next year. People across these very different contexts consistently give us the proverbial “don’t give us fish, teach us how to fish”; “aid is life-saving, but not life-changing”; “if I get skills; no one can take that away from me”; “the house you built for me is ok, but if you helped me get a job and income instead, I could’ve built my own house.” Paraphrasing Lockey, it is shocking that aid agencies still think so much in bricks and mortars terms, when so many aid recipients would tell you otherwise (if you bothered to listen!). I’m sure the technology & development portion of our discussion will be great.

- With that said, there were also a great many “capacity-building” and technical training projects that foundered because of the lack of “inputs,” the materials necessary to put those skills to use. So it is about BOTH of those things – the goods and the knowledge/skills. But my experience with development is that we seem to have gotten the balance between them wrong.

Also… is there a minor disagreement in our midst?

1. The knowledge point indicates that spreading the awareness and information that will enable individuals and societies to “make the right choices” will be the most important task for development, which is substantially different from:
2. “Lets help them get rich, THEN maybe they’ll come around” – which suggests a wholly different focus for aid projects

What models of sustainable development or alternative business are out there that weld together these objectives - giving people better livelihoods; building skills and knowledge base; yet at the same time remains "green"? And I mean concrete cases!

Greg Martin

Andrew, I really liked your suggestion that we think outside the box and beyond the constraints of conventional doctrine on this subject (and others for that matter). I’ve found the discussion above tremendously interesting. Its this kind of interaction that attracted each of us to tt30 in the first place (go team!).

Can I suggest that we set as one of the objectives of this kind of discussion, that we generate a set of possible scenarios (even if they have wide confidence intervals). A way forward would be generate a series of sub-questions in such a way that a scenario can be built. Added to this, we should try to define the variables which would required to build such a scenario and then take a step back and access to the extent to which we have data on (or can make estimates of) those variables.

For example:


What do we expect the national ecological footprint per capita (and overall) of India and China to be at the turn of the century


a) High and low estimates of demographics profiles of India and China
b) Expected urban / rural distribution at the turn of the century
c) (other population variables which may be determinants of consumption patterns – feel free to chime in here)
d) Possible consumption patterns within the groups defined by the above 3 variables (for the sake of simplicity we might want to limit this to energy consumption for now – examples here might be: biomass fuel, wood and coal fires, LPG gas, electric grid (fossil fuel based), electric grid (nuclear fission fuel based)
e) Expected new energy technologies (clean) and the extent (and cost) of rolling them out in developing countries (eg. Pebble bed reactors, ?? clean fusion, wind, solar etc.)
f) Other variables..

Any thoughts?

M Dengler

Friends, this is an exciting discussion that has raised a number of questiosn for further collective exploration. Andrew's summary of two philosophies for approaching development 1) technology and knowledge sharing vs 2) economic prosperity (at the expense of the environment) emphasizes the initial point raised by Todd about the heterogenity of national narratives of development. Lockey makes some good points about green technologies towards more sustainable development. Is one ideal that economic prosperity is achieved, rather than at the expense of the environment, through following a development path that 'leap-frogs' conventional polluting technologies? One example is Brazil's large use of ethanol for vehicles. Another example is the use of solar panels (rather than batteries) to power radios in remots villages in Africa. The solar panels are built and sold by locals providing some new jobs, smf entertainment and reducing waste by using solar energy. Keeping the human focus where new jobs are created and the quality of life for people more widely improves is important because as explained above by another discussant - nobody wants to be told that they cannot live as well as the next person. Greg's suggestion about using scenarios to break different national narratives into driving factors offers a way to qualitatively consider what specific factors may contribute to the use green techologies as a way to foster development that 'leap-frogs' the polluting stage of development.

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  • tt30 - the young think tank of the Club of Rome (CoR) is composed of independent men and women around the age of 30 (therefore tt30) who are concerned about the problems of today and committed to work towards the solution of these challenges. The think tank was founded in 2001. To learn more about our organization and individual members, click on the 'About' link

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