If All Seven Billion People Had Wheels

2011•11•04 Jacob Park Green Mountain College

An opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times, with the provocative title If All Chinese Had Wheels, argued that “if the level of industrialization in China could be increased to the point that each Chinese family possessed an automobile and other amenities of industrial society, the effect on China and the entire world would be catastrophic”.

China has since replaced the United States (US) as the world’s largest auto market after recording a phenomenal 46 percent increase in its 2009 vehicle sales. It, along with India and the other so-called BRICS countries are now emerging as a key focal point of the global economic engine, so perhaps it is not so surprising that China is on track to become the world’s largest economy by the middle of this century. In recent years it became the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions (though its per capita GDP emissions are still much lower compared to the US and other OECD industrialized countries).

All these facts might indeed usher in concerns of an imminent global ecological catastrophe. But would it surprise you to know that If All Chinese Had Wheels, written by Dennis Pirages and Paul Ehrlich, was published back on 16 March 1972 — almost a decade before China started its modern industrialization path with the creation of special economic zones in Southern China?

What is remarkable about the article is not necessarily its accuracy (although it is certainly prophetic on a number of levels) but rather its focus on the long standing but never fully resolved question of how and to what degree the international community can commit itself to sustainable development for all of the world’s inhabitants (not just for the fortune few that live in the wealthy band of countries).

With our planet said to have welcomed its seventh billion resident recently, and with the United Nations embarking on the Rio+20 international conference in June 2012, the question of the international community’s commitment to sustainable development for all seems more urgent but strangely less relevant to what is going around the world. Let me offer two examples of this weird state of world affairs.

Humanitarian catastrophes like the famine in the Horn of Africa show the limitations of actual governance without effective government action.

First, even as the international community appears to be more connected through social media, so that even government-imposed media blackouts can’t prevent images of violent crackdowns being posted online, it seems helpless if not completely unable to respond effectively, for instance, to the famine in the Horn of Africa.

Humanitarian catastrophes like this famine show the limitations of actual governance without effective government action. What type of effective global collaborative action can we realistically expect for issues like water scarcity in the developing world when the potential deaths of almost 800,000 people have so little impact on the world’s humanitarian consciousness?

Second, even as the scientific consensus on the impact of climate change on biodiversity loss and the intensity of hurricanes seems more firmly established, the actual grassroots public support for climate action can only be described as tepid in the usual climate policy champions like the European Union and almost invisible in countries such as the US, except for a handful of state-based initiatives such as one recently passed by California.

What type of effective global collaborative action can we realistically expect when the potential deaths of almost 800,000 people have so little impact on the world’s humanitarian consciousness.

Similarly, as the international community starts to learn more about the cumulative effects that growing world population and consumption are placing on agriculture and natural resources, we find ourselves needing to understand and take action on how best to feed a billion people who are chronically malnourished and prevent our agricultural systems from further degrading land, water, biodiversity, and other natural resources base all at the same time.

It seems almost baffling that elected leaders gathered at the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere nearly a quarter of a century ago in 1988 and passed a resolution (one should add without provoking much political controversy) stating that “humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war” and agreed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions 20 percent by 2005.

If the 1972 New York Times article contained an interesting thread of an idea that might be worth repeating, it might be this: “by establishing a high quality life instead of a higher quantity of life, they (industrialized countries) could provide a new kind of model for the developing nations to emulate”. Almost forty years later, it may be safe to assume that the international community is still waiting for the arrival of that new model.

What do you think? Does the seven billion population figure represent an important milestone in terms of our global sustainability future? Why does it seem like we do less and behave more passively just as the science of environmental challenges seems more certain than ever? Is it that we are entirely distracted by the global economic uncertainty, or is it something else?

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Author

Jacob Park

Associate Professor Green Mountain College

Jacob Park teaches at Green Mountain College in Vermont and is a senior fellow at the Environmental Leadership Program and associate fellow at the Asia Society, among others. E-mail him at .

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  • Alan

    That your questions are not garnering a response may be the most telling answer of all. Given the scope of the problem(s), people generally don’t know what to do, and as the problems build it only further exacerbates our sense of helplessness.

    In my job as a program officer at a grant-making foundation, I see many interesting proposals to address various issues and aspects related to our overall environmental situation. 

    My sense is that while many learned and sincere people and organizations have a plausible sense of the future scenarios we’re facing, many are failing to get adequate traction because they continue trying to apply contemporary but increasingly obsolete methods to problem solve and don’t recognize that traditional ways to address our current challenges are inadequate to the task. They can mitigate, they can extend the timeline, but they cannot solve.

    Like Einstein said, problems can’t be solved at the same level of consciousness at which they were created.

    Faced with this experience, the most well-meaning people continue to try variations on a theme until they get frustrated or despairing. Then, too often they become compulsive, or distracted, or depressed.

    A fascinating and promising approach to our global issues – decidedly new paradigm and yet grounded in science and partaking only of secular terms that wouldn’t alienate the mainstream academics and corporations who are most interested in it – is being championed by MIT’s Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge. It is called Presencing or Theory U. 

    It’s worth checking out at the Presencing Institute (www.presencing.com)

    • Jacob

      Thanks, Alan for sharing your interesting post.

      Extending your comment that “they can mitigate, extend the timeline, but they cannot solve”, I guess it is no longer clear to me what does it actually mean to “solve” global sustainability challenges like climate change, poverty, etc.

      I really think it is remotely plausible to get our planet to radically lower the global GHG emissions in the next two decades WITHOUT having dramatically lowering the international GDP footprint (Greece/Euro/EU problem may help us get there unintentionally, of course) and/or finding some innovation “silver bullet” or geo-engineering scheme that may bring as much negative side effects as anything else, I am convinced that the international community can do it.

      I really wish that it was simple as coming up with the 2011 version of the John F. Kennedy “let us go to the moon by the end of the decade” speech/metaphor, which is often invoked among “we just need the political will to solve this problem” set.

      The problem is not that we can’t even agree whether going to the moon is a worthwhile venture (which is a debate worth having), but rather it seems like we can’t even agree that moon even exists.

      • Alan

        Yes, I really hear you, Jacob. What does it mean to “solve” things that are so seemingly intractable, that have so much inertia? And now, with climate change trends as they are – appearing to follow a path with implications far beyond our time horizon (and temperature threshold)?  And as you say, how can we solve when we can’t even agree there is a problem, or at least one worth trying to address!  Faced with this dilemma we tend to “extend and pretend”, just like Europe’s leaders facing the inevitable end-game of intrinsically unsustainable economies.

        In my original comment, an underlying thought is that we in the West see the world through a worldview of separation, and the assumptions and beliefs that flow from that limited (but powerful) view comprise the underpinnings of our conceptions about about what is possible. 

        Thus, in our imagination “toolkit” we recognize tools and techniques that have worked for us over the centuries to get us to this point of advanced rational civilization – but we fail to see that the toolkit contains other tools, other techniques, that we’ve forgotten about, discarded, or never knew about, but that have been known by other cultures whose lifeways have remained closer to Nature, indeed in identification with Nature.

        As such, if we continue to apply only the familiar tools we’ve used thus far to advance our civilization – tools that have yielded tremendous benefits for human comfort and knowledge but that have taken us out of balance and harmony with Nature, which is the requisite backdrop to our human project – then no matter what we do we’ll only be kicking the can down the road. Perhaps we’ll lessen the symptoms of our disease, but the root cause will not be cured and whatever we build will occur on an illusory foundation…the belief in our separation from Nature.

        This belief is keeping us from seeing reality, to our grave peril.

        If a worldview of oneness with Nature and each other could be prescribed then it would be quite simple, but it cannot. It can only be described, and then it is left to each person to have a self-authenticating experience of it. Once one does, it is transformative. Yet, while it cannot be prescribed, we can nonetheless help create the conditions for a person to have this transformative change in awareness. Studying ecology and systems helps rationally-oriented people. Being of service and thinking of others, including animals, helps emotionally-oriented people. Taking kids into Nature helps. Ultimately, being present is the key no matter where one is.

        The challenge is that this consciousness tends to be subversive to the status quo because it questions the values that undergird our commercial culture and its exploitive tools and techniques. People invested in maintaining this culture thus have an incentive to remain asleep, to further the separation. Not much we can do about them, but be patient and wait for their system to collapse around them, as it will, sooner or later. Then, they’ll be looking around for solutions, too.

        Until then, like hummingbirds dropping water on a forest fire, we can keep doing our best!

        My philosophy in a nutshell…for what it’s worth!  :-)