Slate has a middling piece by Anne Applebaum on the moral quandaries posed by the development of technologies than can alleviate some of the world's extreme poverty but increase the dangers of climate change. Applebaum points to the unveiling in India of the $2,500 Nano, the new ultra-cheap ride that promises to greatly expand the mobility of the nation, particularly those rising from the lower to middle class.
I say the piece is middling because she's absolutely spot on about the dilemma, but reluctant to go anywhere with the observation. Here's the former:
What does feed the masses, at least at the moment, is no secret: high-tech farming, chemical fertilizers, genetically engineered crops. Modern means of communication and transport—cars, telephones, computers—will eventually make the poor richer, too. Though there are many fans of "environmentally sustainable development" who believe we can have less poverty, less pollution, and lower carbon emissions at the same time, that's not happening out there in the real world, as the unveiling of the Nano demonstrates well.
"That's not happening out there in the real world" is kind of an understatement, and it gets to one of my bigger frustrations with the overall movement to combat global warming. I actually do think global warming is a problem that needs to be addressed, but when activists are running around blaming specific hurricanes or short term weather patterns on the long-term (and still not completely known) effects of global warming, it's obvious they're taking a page from the anti-smoking movement where statistics are routinely manipulated to make it seem that being within 100 yards of a lit cigarette is as lethal as shot of cyanide on the rocks.
It's also very, very easy to bemoan the miserable state of the environment when you can afford to make "environmentally friendly" choices. As Applebaum notes, "In many countries, the desire not to be poor is, at the moment, stronger than the desire to breathe clean air. Look at photographs of Beijing in the smog if you don't believe me."
Even though Applebaum gets the problem, she hedges when it comes to what sorts of measures might show that environmentalists were taking the poverty v. environmentalism debate seriously. She writes: "If, at the next [climate change] conference, delegates also focus even a few minutes of their attention on the millions of Nano cars that will take to the roads in India and elsewhere over the next few years, then we'll know they're really serious."
Some words aren't really a measure. Some level of support for things that will elevate the world's poor and speed up the process by which more of the world can afford to be environmental caretakers would be a better measure. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for an endorsement of upward mobility as represented by the Nano.