The Environment

Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University
Walt speaks to the growing immediacyto address the planet's carrying capacity.
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Question: What is the world’s biggest challenges?


Stephen Walt: I think there is a sense . . . a growing sense that there are going to be limits to how many people you can keep on the planet, and how many people you can have living at a certain standard of living. And I think the major constraint there is environmental. The most obvious symptom of that is growing concern with global warming and climate change of various kinds; and the sense that we may not be able to stop that particular train before it goes off the cliff, you know if you imagine some of the more catastrophic scenarios. Does that end all life on the planet? No. But does it have very severe consequences for different parts of the world? I think that’s . . . that’s there. I think we are going to see over the next 40 or 50 years a fundamental shift in the balance of power between what has been the sort of transatlantic access – Europe and America – for the last several hundred years shifting more towards Asia. The United States will be a critical part of that too; but again India and China much more so. I think third there is a . . . an issue of equality . . . an inequality on a global scale now which is compounded by the fact that increasingly, people who are further down the inequality scales are more and more aware of what their relative positions are. And again, the advent of global communications and things like that is starting to make it much more obvious to people. So we have at least, I think, a potential train wreck of different trends happening where India and China are developing. Their development is gonna put greater environmental strains on the world. They’re not gonna want to remain in an undeveloped condition, right? The advanced countries like the United States are going to be concerned about what this all means. And everyone is going to be more aware of all of this simultaneously. So I think the potential for real trouble down the road is . . . is considerable.


Question: Is development at odds with environmentalism?


Stephen Walt: I think there’s an obvious tradeoff.  We can’t have, you know, seven to eight billion people on the planet all of them living like Americans.  So one of the problems we’re going to have to address as a society is how do you convince people in the most advanced societies who are consuming most of the resources to . . . to essentially _________I regard as not necessarily a diminution of their lifestyles, but a diminution of their ostentation.  Or to put it in really crude terms, how do you get more Americans and Europeans to have a much, much smaller carbon footprint, right?  Without thinking that that requires us all to live in tiny homes; that requires us all to ride bicycles to work or things like that; but rather can we be happy about a different lifestyle where maybe the 12,000 foot McMansion is not the American dream, and that we all accept that many more people are going to have to live in some parts of their lives in a much more constrained fashion.  I actually regard that as a social and cultural problem that we are, again, just beginning to have to think about.  And it’s not one that’s gonna sit well with many Americans.  We tend to think, “We’re Americans.  We’re entitled to whatever we can afford.”


Recorded on: 10/8/07