The middle class can be defined in many ways. In reality, the middle class is you and me, since we don’t belong to the top 1% nor are we downright poor. We have middle-class aspirations like finding a better job or earning a more comfortable living. We also have fears like losing our health, our jobs, and our homes. The thing we also fear is inflation because fast-rising prices will lower our living standards and wipe out our savings. In short, the middle class has something to gain and something to lose. They are less likely to rock the boat. So they contribute greatly to the stability of society.
All industrialized countries are characterized by the presence of a strong middle class. The last few decades have seen the rise of the middle class in some of the world’s most populous countries, especially China, India, Brazil and Nigeria. This is unprecedented because in the past a middle class of significant size could only be found in the West. The growing size of this new middle class is staggering – 500 million in China, 300 million in India, 50 million in Brazil and 25 million in Nigeria. Their total number already exceeds the combined populations of Europe, North America and Japan.
If you worry about population explosion due to high birth rate, you should worry more about the new middle class growing too fast. With regard to the environment, the extra burdens are seen in the mass scale of middle-class consumption (food, fresh water, electricity), energy use (more private cars, more roads), wastes generated (garbage, empty cans and bottles), and urbanization (more housing, heating and lighting).
In the past, world production and consumption were concentrated in the West because that is where the middle class lived. Nowadays, the center of gravity has been shifting to the East. The markets there have grown bigger due to larger population and higher income. On the other hand, the environment has deteriorated faster due to heavier consumption, production and energy use.
The rise of the middle class is a good thing because more and more people are sharing the fruits of material progress. The average poverty level of the world has in fact dropped significantly. The West was the first to enjoy the benefits of this material progress. Now the benefits have finally come to the East and the rest of the world in a much faster pace. This is in fact a phenomenon of the 21st century. The big question is – can the global environment sustain this unprecedented economic development?
Chances are the global environment cannot sustain this rapid growth. The evidence is seen in the deteriorating climate conditions. Rapid economic growth comes at a price, which is rapid environmental degradation. What can be done? Should we suppress growth to protect the environment? Should we go back to hunting and agricultural societies as in the past? No! The world moves on, and people want material enhancement in this material world.
Can we protect the environment and grow at the same time? We can and we should. This is what balanced growth is all about so that the environment can sustain our economic progress well into the future. I think the priorities can be boiled down to the following:
*Reduce carbon emissions by gradually switching to alternative fuels.
*Give nature enough time to regenerate, stop over-fishing and over-deforestation.
*Use water, fuels and other raw materials more efficiently.
*Reduce wastes in production and consumption.
*Think globally. What we do as individuals matters for the world.