The developmental perspective on development

Although I was disappointed with the outcome of the Copenhagen Climate Change Talks, I think that the division of involved nations into “developed” and “developing” is very interesting. In China, the decision not to cap emissions is justified by claiming that

1. China, as a newly industrialized nation, did not contribute much of the carbon causing global climate change and, therefore, should not have to bear the costs of redress to the same extent as other nations.

2. Per capita carbon emissions in China are low in comparison with many other nations.

3. China is a developing nation, currently in the carbon-heavy phase of development (which developed nations passed through earlier). This is a necessary step in the march of progress.

In my estimation, of these three rationale, only number 2 has merit. As I stated in an earlier post, most of China’s carbon-heavy activity derives from production of goods for export, and the extraction of materials used in that production. The U.S. and other nations consuming Chinese goods should consider the emissions used in China’s export production as their own, falling under their own caps (or banning imports that do not meet their own emissions requirements). If the West would stop externalizing the costs of their consumption, there would be no need to bicker over emissions targets.

Although I do not buy it, rationale number 3 is also interesting, because it supposes a developmental trajectory of development, consisting of several discrete phases. China is clearly concerned with indicators of economic development. The English language newspaper, The China Daily, runs story after story about growing prosperity and global economic importance (e.g. Chinese tourists traveling and shopping abroad over the New Year make substantial purchases abroad making up an important percentage of revenue, and China’s role stabilizing the global economy in light of the U.S. financial crisis). Every now and then you read something that gets at the heart of the matter. For example, a recent article about Guangdong Province (where we are) discussed the per capita GDP within the province and its parity with some developed nations, thus arguing that the province is fully developed, industrially speaking.

Can “development” skip the part where the air is full of coal soot and exploited workers give their health on the shop floor because that beats a life as a hunger farmer? If the first telephone people have here is a cellphone, why can’t the first factory be green and the increased electricity be wind energy? Can developed nations help the developing ones to skip the messy middle?

Also, why is the ability for people to shop and travel (in other words, become consumers) and status as a global superpower the endgame of development? Why not eradicating hunger and violence, or achieving a literacy rate of 100%?

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