Good new days Affluence: Despite prophecies of gloom and doom, the world's problems are those of wealth, not poverty.

November 10, 1996|By Hal Piper

LAUGH IF you will, but I'll say it again: The world is becoming a safer and richer place.

That's not what we are accustomed to hearing. Whether it is the effect of television news or of our own guilty consciences, we Americans accept too uncritically the idea that it's a wretched, dangerous world out there, divided into the rich few (Americans and West Europeans) and the desperate many (everybody else, especially the Third World).

The U.N. Development Program, for one, says so. Its summer report highlighted statistics of misery: The assets of the world's 350 billionaires exceed the combined incomes of 45 percent of the world's people. In some countries, notably those of the former Soviet bloc, average incomes are lower than 15, or even 25, years ago. To employ its young and growing work force, China must create an unlikely 200 million jobs in the next decade.

We'll be hearing more about the precarious state of the world this week at the United Nations world food summit in Rome. The earth's lands and waters already produce about all the food they can with current technology - so how will we feed the additional 2.5 billion Earthlings who will be among us in the next generation?

It's a challenge, all right. But we already have about 2.5 billion more Earthlings than we did 30 years ago, and the strange fact is that global well-being has increased in that time.

Take any measure: Income and education levels are rising. Diet is better, whether measured by calories per day or by the quality of calories - proteins and vegetables instead of starchy filler. Infant mortality is falling. Life expectancy is rising. And the reason population is increasing is better health, not unchecked breeding. Almost everywhere, women are having fewer babies than their mothers did; it's only that the mothers no longer die young, nor the fathers, aunts and grannies.

Rising affluence brings its own problems. I read somewhere that if each of the 1.2 billion Chinese drinks just one extra glass of beer next year, the grain to brew it would wipe out world grain reserves.

Still, it has to be said: The dominant problems of the 21st century will be those of affluence, not those of poverty. In our own little corner of Maryland, the problems of affluence are environmental (suburban sprawl, bay pollution), distributional (an underclass mired in poverty) and spiritual (Is grabbing more goodies truly the meaning of life?). If we are to confront our problems, we had better know what they are. With new gains in biotechnology, aquaculture and no-till farming, mass famine is unlikely. Instead, the problems will be those that come with the creation of a new, non-Western global middle class.

The world's per-capita income has doubled in the last 20 years. That's faster than the pace at which the United States grew during its most rapid period of development. Of course, statistics, if you know how to use them, can prove anything. What's the good of masses of wealth if it's only going to those 350 billionaires?

But it's not going only to them. The Economist magazine estimates that one billion Asians are moving into the middle class in this generation. While the U.N. Development Program dismisses the [See Affluence, 6f] vaunted Asian economic boom as limited to fewer than 10 percent of Third World countries, that paltry handful includes China, India and Indonesia. These are the world's first, second and fourth most populous countries - 2.3 billion people, more than 40 percent of all those on the planet.

Don't blame the U.N. Its job is to prick the consciences of the rich and rally support for the poor. But in its concern that we shouldn't overlook the neediest, it is overlooking the dominant trend in the world today: the rise of a global middle class. The world is following - at differing paces, and with many local wrinkles - the path of modernization begun three or four centuries ago in the West.

At that time, too, the European world was divided into rich, leisured aristocrats and miserable, hard-working peasants. Karl Marx's big mistake was to suppose that the Industrial Revolution would deepen the division between rich and poor. Instead, it led to the middle-class world we Americans and Europeans inhabit, with material abundance that even yesteryear's aristocrats would envy.

In the next generation, much of the world is joining us. At an exhibition at the Summer Olympics in Korea in 1988, the Japanese pavilion featured a gizmo that shot a thin sheet of water-drops into the air, forming a screen, and on that screen movies were projected. Sheer technological exuberance!

The American pavilion was a somber warning about the limits of technology and the grim potential of human activity to rape the rain forest, obliterate the ozone layer, pollute the planet and just generally make a mess of things.

Now, which exhibit bespeaks a more vibrant, optimistic society?

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