Dammit, Wired, I do like you . . . but why must you guys always assume that new stuff (ok, sometimes pretty cool stuff) will fix all our problems?  There are situations where a new device or good might be important and useful . . . but to argue that a viable development path might be constructed on improving access to cheap consumer goods worldwide fails to acknowledge the reality of the world today.  Even worse, they are not the first to fall into this fallacy – see the Product (RED) trainwreck (or as I like to call it, the buy-your-way-out-of-your-guilt plan), which came at this from the side of providing aid from rich countries.

Why am I so pissy about these sorts of feel-good ideas?  Because perhaps the central challenge that faces us in addressing the intersection of development and environment is the problem that there is simply not enough stuff in the world to allow everyone to consume at the same level as Americans – not even close.  We’d need between 2 and 3 more Earths.  Or, if some Cal Santa Cruz astronomers are correct and they’ve actually found another potentially habitable planet, maybe only 1-2 more Earths.  Hey, it’s progress . . . oh wait, its 20 light years away and we have no way of getting there.  Right, 2-3 more Earths, then.

Under these circumstances, arguing for more consumption makes absolutely no sense at all – instead, it pushes us ever closer toward a zero-sum world, where the only way to improve one’s own material situation is to take away from someone else’s.  I’d argue that this describes the current situation anyway, as we here can only live at our standard because so many do not – but that is a rant for another day.

This is not to say that the global poor should stay that way.  Interestingly, Wired‘s examples of products they like are largely development interventions (irrigation, water filters, rural lighting, etc.) by a different name.  I have no objection to these interventions – they are rather small in terms of consumption footprint, but have tremendous positive effects.  However, the larger message of the piece seems to be that making cheap stuff for these markets is, in the end, good for them.  No.  This rests on the idea that the only products people want are as practical as irrigation – a very bad assumption.  Most of the folks I work with in rural Ghana would love a TV, though I can personally attest that Ghanaian television will not improve their quality of life.  Or anyone else’s for that matter.  Making cheap TVs that people can afford is not going to help us out of the global hole in which we are located – it will just take up more resources faster.

Making development interventions cheap is good.  Further, introducing them through markets, instead of through proscribed programming that is not sensitive to local context, is often good (sometimes markets fail, though).  But assuming that we can generalize from these examples to a wider statement about markets and human well-being doesn’t fly.  We’re not going to buy and sell our way to a more just, sustainable world.

Now, if someone was to get on revolutionizing the generation of electricity such that it is so cheap as to be effectively free, and we could talk about how to really revolutionize development, as this might address the resource shortage problem.  When, for example, recycling becomes super-cheap (a huge percentage of the cost is energy), and we can reuse what we already have instead of constantly digging up more, this equation might change . . .