Tuesday, October 3, 2017

China and India get serious about sustainable development

My interest in developmental economics was first triggered by my Kansas grandfather. He was one of those farmers who thought science was the path to an easier life and greater prosperity. He was big into water management and had contoured his slightly hilly land already in the 1930s and put in two holding ponds (that grew some VERY large turtles). His father was the immigrant from Sweden (1873) who showed up with two years of university-level horticulture instruction (Lund). So my grandfather was very close to ground zero of the project to transform SE Kansas into productive farms. The successful introduction of agriculture into some quite hostile environments is easily the most poorly-told tale in USA history. This is unfortunate because it is probably the most perfect case study in development economics.

One night in the early 1970s, I sat in on a fascinating conversation held by student Indians and Bangladeshis who were my neighbors in that ratty apartment building. What was so interesting is that all the members of this little group were sons of privileged men wealthy enough to send their offspring to foreign universities and quite naturally assumed that they would have a hand in shaping the future of their nations. So mostly they wanted to discuss the best strategies for eliminating the very real pain of underdevelopment even though most of them were computer science majors. I was there because I had shown interest in their pet subject and they hoped I had some expertise on what Minnesota had done right to achieve its level of prosperity. At the time, I really didn't know much, but I have been fascinated by what works ever since so I would gladly revisit some of those bull sessions.

At one point, the most intense of the Indians exclaimed, "Our problem is that we basically have only two sources of energy—nuclear and dung!" Of course, he never even thought of solar because in those days, PV cells were so rare and expensive, only NASA could afford them. Well now they are cheap and India is extremely rich in solar power. And as the video clip below shows, India is becoming very hip to their new reality. My old neighbor is likely overjoyed.

And it looks like China is set to lead the world in fossil-fuel-free transportation. Electric cars seem like a natural fit for them and goodness knows their current automotive fleet is choking her cities so the need is quite obvious. And for my younger readers in USA, you would hardly suspect it by looking around but this country used to routinely create transformative projects like those illustrated below.

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