Excerpt from Chapter 1
Shanghai’s growth over the last thirty years has been staggering. Measured in cars, concrete, new buildings, new homes, and air travel, this city has been transformed from its 1950s industrial hotbed of revolutionary leftism into one of the world’s superstar cities. Its neon-lit buildings along its Bund waterfront feature five star hotels and high end restaurants such as Jean George—enough in quality and quantity to compete with any other world-class city, from New York to Paris.
The rise of this mega-city foreshadows China’s trajectory over the 21st century—and that of the rest of the world. Hundreds of millions will be moving to cities like Shanghai to strike it rich and escape the rural life as more and more of the world’s population continues the shift that’s been going on, in fits and starts, since the Industrial Revolution: moving from the rural to the urban. By 1950,30 percent of the world's population lived in cities. In 2000 this fraction grew to 47 percent, and the United Nations predicts it will rise to 60 percent by 2030. Like you and me these would-be city dwellers want economic opportunities and material comforts that we take for granted:cell phones (and decent service), personal computers, access to private transportation and household air conditioning.
Given this search for the good life,and the amenities that go with it, the move toward urban life makes sense. Cities are capitalism’s growth engine, offering opportunity along every dimension from finding a job to support yourself, a mate to spend your money on, great cultural events to attend with them, and fantastic restaurants of all kinds.And, maybe, a bit later, parks to take the kids to. City growth has lifted billions of people out of poverty.
That’s a good thing, although many lament the loss of agricultural and pastoral life. But how many of the people who bemoan the loss of farm living have gotten up before sunrise to milk cows by hand or slop pigs or pitch hay? I haven’t, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be much fun, day after day. If you don’t believe me, contrast Seinfeld’s life in New York City with the cheery world of Swiss Family Robinson.
Prominent writers such as Jared Diamond, author of the bestsellers Guns,Germs, and Steel and the more foreboding Collapse, are deeply worried about the environmental consequences of the growth of the middle class in the developing world. Diamond, and most environmentalists, charges capitalism with causing climate change because urban growth provides us with the income to afford a Hummer and a big house. Capitalist growth, they say, perpetuates itself with an advertising- and consumer-oriented culture (“The American Dream”) that manipulates our desires to consume more and more carbon-intensive stuff: lawnmowers, air conditioners, cars, car seats,disposable diapers, See ‘n’ Says (kids’ products produce a lot of carbon), and so on. Recent macroeconomic trends support some of these claims. The world’s population, per-capita income, and greenhouse gas emissions are all rising. The world’s population will have grown from 2.6 billion in 1950 to 6.9 billion by2010. Real world per-capita income is now at $7,400, a figure that has grown sharply over the last 40 years. In the year 2005, the world produced 28.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide—predicted to rise to 42.3 billion metric tons by 2030.
That’s a lot of CO2. Leading climate change researchers have concluded that to protect the planet from potentially catastrophic climate change risk we must stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at 500 parts per million(ppm) or even as low as 350 ppm. But this would require reducing our total global carbon dioxide emissions down to at least 19.1 billion tons per year—or about a little less than half of what’s predicted for 2030. In a world with 7billion people—the world’s current population—we would need to shrink carbon emissions down to an average of about two and half tons per per-person. To put this in perspective, a car that gets about 25 miles to the gallon—a Toyota Corolla , and happens to be the most popular car in the United States—would exceed the 2.5 ton target at 7,500 miles per year (the average driver goes something like 12,000 miles a year). But driving is not our sole source of greenhouse gas emissions. When we turn on the lights, eat a steak, order a coffee, take a shower, send an email and countless other little things we do during the day all result in extra greenhouse gas emissions.
Are you ready to cut back? If so, are you willing to cut back that much? If you answered “yes,” you’re probably lying. Evidence pretty much shows that very few individuals have cut back on their carbon-producing activities at all. Most of us are “free riders,” hoping someone else will do the heavy lifting so we don’t have to. The fundamental free rider problem is that each of us hopes that everyone else will cut back and allow us to keep “Hummering” (or Corolla-ing) along.Which is to say that attempts to reduce or reverse our carbon output—to mitigate the damage that we’ve already done—aren’t going so well.
We’re a bit like the Titanic on the night of April 14th 1912. We know how the Titanic’s story ends (because we all saw James Cameron’s movie), but suppose the Titanic’s watchman had seen the iceberg out in the distance. Anticipating that bad things happen when a ship hits such a big piece of ice, they would have issued a warning to the navigator to change course and the disaster would not have taken place.