There is a frequently recurring theme in the discussions about global environmental problems. It starts with the observation that we, the so-called “West” or “global North”, have overused global resources and sinks badly, be it reserves of minerals and metals (rare earths, oil, phosphorus…), the atmosphere or the oceans. Part of the problem seems to be our common modes of consumption. All too often, the destruction of nature does not take place in our own neighbourhoods, but in the so-called “global South”, where many of our resources come from and where many sinks tend to be located (or where the overuse of the latter is most visible – vide climate change). But the problem of the near future is often perceived not to be us, not only us at least, but the societies of the so-called emerging economies – particularly China and India, but also South Africa, Brazil, Argentina or many countries in South-East Asia. We are afraid that they are going to imitate our lifestyles, i.e., eating much meat, flying and driving a lot, buying new electronics every few months just because Apple claims that the new iPhone is better than the old model, wasting food and energy etc. If they do, this would indeed very likely wreak havoc upon the Earth’s ecosystems. But this is a strange sort of thinking actually. In the “North”, we observe a slow change of attitudes towards more sustainable lifestyles and politics. Obviously, we are able to reflect – even though possibly at too slow a pace – upon the consequences of our deeds, so why do we assume that the Chinese, the Indians or Brazilians are just going to copy our wrongs? In today’s globalized world, they see what we are doing and they know that not all of that has been a good idea. Furthermore: is our consumption-based lifestyle really that attractive and universal as we seem to believe? I doubt that it is.
At the level of politics, it may be that the governments of emerging economies are aware of our wrongs and that it may be a good idea to think of policies that prevent them from being repeated in their countries, too. And the consumers may be aware of the problems Northern consumers have been creating through their lifestyles. However – and this is a big “however” – there are at least two arguments against too much optimism in this respect. First, Northern consumers are aware of their own wrongs, too, and while I acknowledge the evolution towards more sustainable modes of consumption, I still miss a more far-reaching link between awareness and action. Second, both consumers and governments, but particularly the latter, suffer from the lack of tested alternatives. There is not a single really sustainable economy in this world which could serve as a blueprint for others. In a globalized world, it is very difficult to deliberately become an “outlier”, to refuse the way things normally go, without being punished by markets, political ostracism etc. Particularly, this is not easy for countries such as China, India or Brazil, where poverty and social challenges are still widespread.
Having said that: I do not propose that there is no such problem, that the rise of the emerging economies does not constitute a danger for global sustainability. It does. But I have the impression that it is being framed wrongly. The Indians are not stupid, but, as stressed above, they are victims of the same social dilemmas which prevent us from living sustainably.
Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that sometimes mentioning the fear of the Chinese copying US-American lifestyle is just a smoke-bomb, an attempt to distract oneself and others from the fact that we, the Northerners, while being aware that our ways of living are not sustainable, seem not to be able to translate this awareness into significant changes in lifestyle – say, less flying, less meat consumption, more sharing, less chasing the latest trend in electronics. It is often bemoaned by critics from the global South, and rightly so, that it is hypocritical to ask the South not to repeat our mistakes, whereas we keep committing them.
Clearly, sustainability at the global scale cannot be achieved if the Chinese, the Indians, the South Africans, the Brazilians and others adopt the dominant “Northern lifestyle” with its high levels of consumption. Nor can it be achieved if we the Northerners keep this lifestyle. However, given the patterns of historical responsibility for global environmental problems, it is us who should make the first step and stop behaving unsustainably. This would be of double benefit: first, we would avoid being hypocrites. Second, we might offer the South a blueprint for how to avoid our mistakes while still being able to achieve a decent standard of living.
Let me conclude this: I do not think that the “imitation of Northern lifestyle” problem does not exist or that it is not a serious problem. But I do think that how we in the North perceive it tends to be arrogant and presumptuous because many of us seem to imply that the Southerners are not able to reflect critically upon our historic actions and their consequences. The problem lies elsewhere, I would argue, and consists of a mix of lack of probed alternatives and the missing link between awareness and actual actions, the solution to both being at least partly our responsibility.