Why Do They Have to Develop?

By | March 9, 2010

Here’s a charmer of a quote from the comments section of the article I linked the other day about how a new catalyst enables highly efficient production of hydrogen from water:

Ok why do under developed nations even need power honestly? Can’t they just stay under-developed forever?

I’d like to think this is a joke. Unfortunately, even if it is a joke, it reflects a belief that is held in all seriousness by far too many people: to wit, that there is a case to be made for depriving less developed societies of economic and technological development. The argument begins with the assumption that such development is inherently harmful to the planet. We can’t even afford for the developed world to continue to be developed, the thinking goes. We certainly don’t need any more societies joining our matricidal ranks, toxifying the planet, contributing to mass extinctions, and paving the way for some final, cataclysmic end.

A supporting set of assumptions derive from a highly romanticized view of primitive cultures. Some 18th-century romantic primitivists touted the idea of the Noble Savage, which held that people living in a “state of nature” are not only happier than, but morally superior to, their civilized brethren. And this idea is with us even today. While the phrase “Noble Savage” doesn’t get too much play these days, there are apparently no shortage of individuals who do not doubt for a second the veracity of the scenes depicted on their souvenir Avatar beverage cups from Burger King.

This Noble Savage argument is a sop to the first argument. Since we know that economic and technological development represent nothing but bad news for the planet, and since we know that primitive peoples are healthier, happier, more attractive, and nicer than we are, it woud be wrong even to think about subjecting primitive people to our way of life — even if they think they want it. After all, we know better than they do — they’re a bunch of primitives! (Conveniently, the certitude that they are wiser than we are extends to virtually every subject except this one.)

All right, so let’s deal with these arguments.

1. Economic and technological development cause massive damage to the planet and their proliferation will only cause more damage.

Well, yes and no. There is no question that, historically, human success has come at the expense of many other members of the ecosystem. We’ve done a lot of damage. But that isn’t the whole story. Dirty technologies have enbabled the development of cleaner technologies. Unsustainable practices have set the stage for sustainable ones. In a very real sense, it is human success which has empowered the environmental movement.For the first time in the history of the planet, members of one species are taking steps to prevent the extinction of other species, looking for ways to mitigate and repair damage to the environment, and even talking about one day bringing other species back from extinction.

These astounding trends are the result of economic and technological development. Non-developed cultures may “live in harmony” with nature, but they don’t attempt any of this proactive stuff.

2. Primitive cultures are better off staying primitive.

We’ll leave the assumed moral superiority of primitive cutlures alone. I don’t believe that it is a given (far from it), but let’s take it as a given that primitive cultures are as nice as (or maybe even a liitle nicer than) developed ones. The part of the argument I want to deal with is the part that says that the material well being of people who live in such cultures is as good as or better than what we enjoy.

Anyone who truly believes this to be the case ought to put on a loincloth and move into a grass hut on a riverbank somewhere. Live the rest of your life — or even a few months — without the benefits of modern food production, sanitation, health care, shelter, clothing, communications, and entertainnment…and then come back and tell the rest of us how much better it is. If you really believe it is better, good for you. Back to the hut with you, and thanks for doing your part to help fix the planet.

But if you don’t think it’s better, and in fact you find such a life to be harsh beyond description and not something you want to endure yourself, then please refrain from glibly subjecting other people to it.


  • rjschwarz

    The Amish are about the best case example of an undeveloped yet successful society and I don’t see a lot of people beating down the doors to join up.

    Simpler life=shorter, harder life.

  • Orion

    Well, let’s start off with a society of lotus-eaters on a tropical island like Tahiti. Aside from the occasional typhoon the weather is mild, there’s plenty of food and water for relatively little effort. As long as they don’t breed themselves to extinction the society can go on essentially forever, with little advancement from one generation to the next. Sudden changes to their environment (invaders, disease, pestilence, etc.) tend to wipe them out, however.

  • Christian

    Avatar has it’s flaws, sure. But equating what was depicted there to the “Noble Savage” yarn misses a point: The giant smurfs in Avatar had an extremely tangible direct connectivity to their biosphere with their USB hair. That’s a massively different paradigm than Earth’s “savage” peoples, much less the “civilized” ones. I can envision Earthlings moving through a nuts-and-bolts/wires-and-bits tech phase into a longer-term-sustainable state that is better integrated with the biosphere. And maybe that will look a lot less “constructed” and more “naturally integrated”. Maybe not Pandora-esque, but hopefully less rape-and-pillage-y and maybe even a little Dr. Dolittle-ian.

  • Sally Morem

    “Ok why do under developed nations even need power honestly? Can’t they just stay under-developed forever?”

    Yeah, why can’t they be good little peons and enjoy their poverty?

    Because they are human beings, that’s why. They have hopes and dreams like everybody else.

    Fortunately for them and all of us, our non-zero sum economic game is becoming more and more non-zero sum as technology accelerates.

  • Tom Billings

    Phil, the specifics of these arguments have cycled over the last 4 decades, but have not much changed. They combine multi-culturalism with Deep Ecology environmentalism. They amount to arguments against one particular culture, not for primitive (read agrarian, pastoral and hunter-gatherer) cultures. That one culture is Industrial Culture, wherever it is growing and thriving.

    These arguments are propounded by people and groups that feel threatened by the advance of other people’s industrial freedoms of action. The praise for other groups stops, the moment they shift decisively to industrial culture growth.

    As industrial culture around the world moves out of an environment where people are desperate for individual survival, actions have begun for mitigation of initial problems with the environment, true. In spite of that, it even more intensely reduces the ability of many elites to keep their position of high status in society. Not surprisingly, we see bogus negative extrapolations from these groups about industrial trends, while masking their basic hostility to industrial culture with praise for “primitive” culture. Other people feel little for the tool that is culture, while empathizing deeply with those still strapped to the wheel of agrarian toil. The elites praise “culture” as the true measure of human worth, and demand all cultures be treated alike, except industrial culture.

    Their fears power their own behavior. We should not let their fears power our behavior, no matter the mask laid over them.