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How Much Is Enough?
“How much is enough?” is the question of our time. As the dangers of unchecked climate change become clearer and the global population inches towards 10 billion, policymakers, thinkers, and activists search desperately for ways to reduce consumption and promote sustainable lifestyles. Meanwhile, in much of the developing world, many are moving in the opposite direction, longing to take full advantage of their newfound purchasing power: a revolution of rising expectations.
Against this backdrop, World Policy Journal has convened a group of global thinkers to address the critical question of how much is enough in colliding worlds of overabundance and scarcity. People’s answers to the question drive decisions, policies, and behaviors all over the world—from poverty-stricken rural villages where subsistence on a dollar a day is a way of life; to cities worldwide that are growing along with their emerging middle classes; and to the gilded enclaves of the most privileged, for whom the minimum is never sufficient.
The Summer 2011 issue of World Policy Journal also explores the state of the war in Afghanistan; the push for better civil-military coordination in U.S. policymaking; the plight of Egypt’s liberals in today’s post-revolutionary moment; the roots and realities of Greece’s financial crisis; the Russian government’s perpetual inability—or unwillingness—to fight alcoholism; and the West’s muddled response to the violent madness of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
What does “quality of life” mean, and how should we measure it? A panel of global experts weighs in. Featuring Peter Singer, Pavan Sukhdev, Hon-Lam Li, and other leading thinkers.
“How much is enough?” William Powers has spent much of the past year posing this question to people around the world, following his own experiment to see how much he could reduce his consumption footprint. “Whenever I talked directly about ecocide and global warming,” he writes, “eyes glazed over.” But audiences everywhere did respond to the idea that less is more. “Guide folks into a vision of their lives with less material clutter and over-scheduling and you strike a powerful chord,” writes Powers, who calls for efforts to promote balanced consumption—starting with a global ban on all forms of marketing to children under the age of 12.
Living on “a dollar a day” has become shorthand for defining poverty in the developing world. Yet it tells us very little about the lives of some 850 million people who survive at or around that level. Meet two such people in Vietnam: a pedicab driver in Hanoi and a farmer in a village 50 miles outside the capital. How do they allocate their limited resources?
The emergence of Western-style consumer culture in places like India comes just as environmentalists and sustainability advocates, many based in the West, are calling for the adoption of less consumption-driven lifestyles. “To judge from the enthusiasm with which many Indians have embraced consumerism, it’s going to be a tough sell,” writes Mira Kamdar. Until a tipping point is reached in the West and citizens revolt en masse against our own hyper-consumptive economies, an event whose arrival is distant at best, it is hypocritical to expect people in emerging economies to behave any differently, she argues.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
Creating sustainable development might ultimately hinge on how we understand “middle class,” since achieving that vaguely defined status is now the ambition of billions of people. To find out what it means to be middle class,World Policy Journal turned to writers in three countries at different levels of economic development—Tecee Boley in Liberia, with a per capita annual income of roughly $400; Aubrey Belford in Indonesia, at around $4,000; and Bas Heijne in the Netherlands, at roughly $40,000.
In his book The Mystery of Capital, probing the relationship between property rights and poverty, the influential Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto claims that some $9 trillion of “dead capital” is locked up in land, homes, and businesses belonging to poor people who did not technically “own” them. Without deeds or titles, he argues, people all over the world are not able to leverage their property for profit. For the past decade, solving this problem has been de Soto’s mission, as he explains in a conversation with the editors of World Policy Journal.
As a teacher at a school for the children of Ecuador’s wealthy elite, Thea Johnson witnessed firsthand the realities of social mobility in a highly stratified society. “In Ecuador,” she writes, “the poor can become working- or middle-class, but the middle class can never become rich.” This dynamic has not changed under the presidency of Rafael Correa, whose dreams of a “socialist revolution” have yet to shake the roots of the power structure.
Can an island nation survive without its islands? Kenneth E. Barden reports from the remote South Pacific country of Kiribati, where rising sea levels are creating an existential crisis. “For Kiribati,” writes Barden, “the question of sustainability is not a matter of lifestyle—it is a matter of life and death.”
From the moment Burma won its independence from Britain, the Rohingya—a Muslim minority community in a largely Buddhist nation of 55 million—have been targeted by a succession of repressive governments intent on controlling and marginalizing non-Burmese ethnic groups. Hundreds of thousands have fled across the border to Bangladesh, where the government refuses to recognize them as refugees, classifying them as illegal immigrants. Saiful Huq Omi, a photographer based in Dhaka, presents powerful images of the desperate conditions of the Rohingya: crushing poverty, no access to medical care, and no recourse to the law. And yet, he writes, “even a life of misery in Bangladesh seems more appealing than a return to Burma.”
The killing of Osama bin Laden served as a jarring reminder of just how far the war in Afghanistan has moved beyond its initial goals, writes Michael Daxner, who has consulted for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan for the past decade. The massive nation-building effort into which the United States and NATO stumbled continues to falter, even as Washington anxiously debates the size and schedule of inevitable force withdrawals. “Still,” Daxner writes, “for the first time in at least five years, I have the sense that there is a genuine movement among Afghans toward taking the initiative and reclaiming a role in determining their country’s future.”
Since the end of the Cold War, the military side of America’s foreign policy system has won more funding and more influence, while the civilian side—the State Department’s diplomats and foreign aid officers—has lost out. One reason for America’s travails in Iraq and Afghanistan is the reality that the military has been asked to fill a vacuum left by the absence of a fully resourced and well-trained corps of diplomats, writes Patricia DeGennaro. “Our government needs to put its money where its ‘smart power’ mouth is and create a comprehensive national-security structure that supports an alignment of interests instead of endless confrontation,” DeGennaro writes. That essential realignment might require nothing short of the creation of a joint civilian-military agency—an authority superior to both the State Department and the Pentagon.
At the core of the Egyptian revolution were young people with dreams of turning Egypt into a genuine secular democracy. Now, the fate of their ambitious project is in doubt, reports Jenna Krajeski. Under military rule, the tide in Egypt has turned from revolutionary to counterrevolutionary, and Egypt’s liberals are in danger of being pushed aside and outflanked by the Muslim Brotherhood. “Egypt’s so-called ‘Facebook revolutionaries’ are now confronting the task of spreading their message to people and places barely touched by the Internet and social media,” Krajeski writes. The course Egypt takes will depend to a great extent on whether the liberals can remain relevant without betraying the principles of their revolution—or each other.
The roots of Greece’s economic catastrophe lie in excesses that have become endemic to Greek society and governance during the past three decades, argues Ioannis N. Grigoriadis. “Greece’s path toward recovery will not only involve administrative reform,” he writes. “It also requires a major economic and cultural shift in people’s lives. Greeks will have to give up living beyond their means and expecting every unfulfilled need to be met by the state.” Along with a drastic reduction of the size of the public sector, Grigoriadis calls for creating a skilled bureaucracy committed to ending the “national sport” of tax evasion.
Soviet-era joke: Brezhnev gets a telegram from Siberia—“Quick, send two train cars of vodka. The people have sobered up and are asking where the Tsar is.” Today, reports Heidi Brown, alcoholism poses as great a threat to Russia as it did during Soviet times, largely on account of the decades-long unwillingness of authorities to confront the problem. A drunk population, it seems, is easier to control—and there is money to be made from the booze beez-ness. “That basic calculation has managed to survive the momentous political upheavals that shaped Russia in the past century—the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet era, the collapse of communism, and the rise of crony capitalism,” writes Brown. “Regardless of all those transformations, no Russian government has ever seriously attempted to provide for or encourage the treatment of alcoholism.”
In the wake of popular protests inspired by the so-called “Arab Spring”—followed by intense fighting between the government and tribal groups– Yemen seems to be on the verge of descending into chaos. Some counterterrorism experts worry that this environment will benefit al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yet earlier this year, Glevum Associates, a social-science research and strategic communications firm, released a wide-ranging report on Yemeni public opinion that found little support for AQAP.
In 1985, CBS News correspondent David A. Andelman, now the Editor of World Policy Journal, travelled to Libya to interview its ruler, Muammar Gaddafi. “I was left with one overriding, utterly chilling, impression,” Andelman recalls. “It was his eyes. In no sense can the camera possibly do them justice. They look at you, through you, and you recognize that there is something quite mad going on behind them.” As NATO’s military action against Gaddafi continues, Andelman reflects on the broader challenges posed by the shifting politics of the Middle East. All too often the West, but especially the United States, “has been out of touch with the hopes and dreams of most of the region's people—our engagement confined largely to the regimes of their oppressors or violent intervention when it has suited us, or our various acolytes,” he laments.