In a series of publications, Centennial Group (http://www.centennial-group.com) has described alternate scenarios of where the world economy could be by 2050. While there are other more aspirational scenarios, even under the central scenario the world will be very different than what it is today: it will be much more prosperous, with total global GDP three times and average global GDP two and half times that of today. Citizens of as many as 84 countries, with a population of 5.8 billion or almost 59 percent of world in 2050, will have income levels equal to or higher than today’s average in Southern Europe. Equally dramatic, under this (central) scenario, the world will have more than 4 billion additional upper or middle class consumers. And if one of the more aspirational scenarios—strong policies or high global productivity—is realized, the number of additional consumers will be even higher.
The question then arises: what consumption pattern of the world’s 9.8 billion people in 2050 can our planet sustain? As it is, there are signs that the planet is under severe strains. Global warming and associated climatic changes are the most visible signs. But there are others: increasing water stress in a rising number of countries in Asia and Africa; rising health costs of and public protects over polluted air and water; massive traffic jams in many metropolitan areas; and concerns about food security, deforestation and so on. In general, there is a growing recognition that there are real limits to the earth’s natural resources, and that it may be physically impossible for the estimated 8 billion plus citizens of today’s developing countries in 2050 to replicate the current lifestyles of consumers in Western Europe and North America. If they tried to do so, the resulting carbon emissions will far exceed the levels called for to meet the global targets agreed at COP-21. There may be severe shortages of energy and other minerals; food security may be at risk; the world may be awash with cars; developing countries will suffer from urban sprawl; and water shortages may lead to social unrest or even international conflicts.
Clearly, people throughout the world need to adopt different lifestyles that put lot less demands on our fragile planet. As the incremental pressures on natural resources from now on will come largely from the emerging and developing economies (EDEs), logically the solutions to the problem will also have to come from them. Either the EDEs continue trying to replicate the Western lifestyle and create problems of pollution, congestion, food shortage and water stress and adopt much more costly corrective measures after the problems have mushroomed, or they have the foresight to leapfrog to a much more sustainable lifestyle up front. The developed countries can and should play a crucial role in resolving this common global problem by helping EDEs leapfrog to sustainable prosperity, but, given the relatively small size of their population, they cannot do much to relieve the pressure on natural resources except by developing technological solutions and setting the example. People in developing countries should view this leapfrogging as a blessing in disguise for it will lead them to life styles that are both healthier and more consistent with their ancient teachings of modesty, frugality, self-discipline, and living in harmony with nature.
Contours of a leapfrog strategy to sustainable prosperity for all
What is called for is a fundamental change in the values and basic mindset of people everywhere. It will not be easy and will not happen overnight. And there is no single silver bullet. What is required is that we all think carefully as to what we do, how we do it, and what are the ways that will put fewer demands on the earth.
Following this logic, it is possible to develop contours of a strategy to leapfrog to a much more sustainable lifestyle than that much of the consumer society—in developed as well developing world—has today. The basic elements of such a strategy could include:
Low carbon economies: There should be a particular focus on decarbonization of energy through promotion of renewable energy and earliest possible phasing out of all fossil fuels, as well as promotion of energy efficiency in all economic and human activities.
More compact, livable, and smarter cities: This will reverse the current trends towards urban sprawl, congestion, pollution, and other social ills.
Checking the car population explosion: This perhaps will be one of the toughest changes. But we are already seeing a trend in many developed countries—including in the United States, the Mecca of the car culture—that many young professionals are moving back to the city centers, rely on public transport, and do not even own a car. As developing countries create more compact, livable, and smart cities, use of mass transit combined with disincentives for the use of private cars will further reduce the carbon footprint of individuals and in the process, also help improve their health as people walk more instead of driving.
Changing the diets: Some features of the current Western lifestyle are unhealthy not only for the earth, but also for human beings. Dietary habits are one of them. Not only is the current level of calorie consumption high in developed countries, but also its composition is wasteful and unhealthy. Some estimates suggest that nearly 50 percent of food is wasted globally while moving from “farm to fork.” One element of this wastage is the heavy reliance on meat-intensive diets. There are no clear role models of healthy diets in the developed countries, though there are several isolated examples in emerging economies. The traditional dietary habits of India with its emphasis on vegetarianism deserve attention in this respect.
Changing the mindset: Above all, people must move to a new mindset, a mindset of frugality and living in harmony with nature as all ancient culture have taught. Under this new mindset, the present showmanship will be replaced by modesty, waste by conservation, and excess by frugality.
In order to change the current mindset on lifestyles, intensive social marketing is necessary. This is no easy task but is not impossible either. The history of population control provides an example of what effective social marketing can achieve. 50 years ago, the population explosion seemed to threaten economic prosperity in developing countries. But with concerted social marketing, the case for family planning was effectively sold. Similar efforts are now necessary to convince the public that the high-carbon, consumerist, throwaway culture developed over the last 200 years is not sustainable. We can and must leapfrog to a much more sustainable lifestyle. Pope Francis has taken a giant step in this direction through the publication and dissemination of his encyclical, Laudato Si. Other thought leaders need to join hands to change the mindsets about lifestyle and facilitate a leap to sustainable lifestyles in developing, as well as advanced economies.
This note is based on a detailed paper, “Leapfrogging to a new lifestyle for sustainable prosperity: A blessing, not a burden,” written by Dr. Ramgopal Agarwala for the Emerging Markets Forum. It available on the EMF website:www.emergingmarktesforum.org and on www.pahleindia.org. It also appears as a box in the book “The World in 2050: Striving for a Just, Harmonious and Interconnected Global Community” being published by Oxford University Press, 2016.
Ramgopal Agarwala is Chairman, Pahle India Foundation, New Delhi. Harinder S. Kohli is President and Chief Executive Officer, Centennial Group International, Washington DC.