Can the planet handle more middle-class humans?

In just 10 years, the world for the first time will be more middle-class than poor. That will tax resources and set up conflicts. But with more people free from just trying to survive, the arts and sciences should boom as well.

Jason Lee/Reuters
Passersby reflect on a Car dealer’s window in central Beijing.

Let's have a round of applause for an astounding milestone in individual achievement, family prosperity, and community improvement around the globe. In just a decade the world will, for the first time in history, change from being mostly poor to being mostly middle-class.

Think about it. The third planet from the sun – not the closest,which burns hottest, nor the farthest and coldest, but the one in the Goldilocks middle – will by definition be middle-class, at least for the species that thinks it is in charge.

In a special "Future Focus" report, Monitor correspondents focused on three countries that account for the lion’s share of the growth: China, India, and Brazil. Each is becoming more middle-class in its own way. In India, reporter Ben Arnoldy shows how it is a family affair. In Brazil, Julia Michaels examines the social network that helped one woman rise from poverty. In China, Peter Ford looks at the massive upward mobility engineered by Beijing’s capitalist/command economy.

Historically, the growth of the middle class has presaged democracy. Middle classes throughout history have wanted a government that reconciles their differences and reflects their interests. Since Athens, they have rejected the idea that one person born into privilege or good with a sword or deemed to be divinely ordained is entitled to rule.

“Non quis sed quid” is the ancient motto: “not who but what.” If you can do the job, you’ve got the job.

The middle class is not uniformly virtuous, of course. Too many middle-class Germans voted for Hitler. Too many middle-class Americans and South Africans supported institutional racism. Those in the middle have fallen for propaganda and fads. Because only a slight drop in income can cause them to fall back into poverty, they are susceptible to fear and doubt.

There’s more that’s not great. Affluence multiplied by billions of Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, Africans, Latin Americans, Arabs, and Southeast Asians devours resources. That leads to rapacious extraction, rising prices, and competitive clashes. More consumption also means more waste. The United Nations 2010 “World Development Report” worries that with the carbon footprint of today’s middle class, carbon emissions will triple by mid-century.

Still, the report notes, “it is ethically and politically unacceptable to deny the world’s poor the opportunity to ascend the income ladder simply because the rich reached the top first.”The report does strike a hopeful note: Developing countries use less energy and cause less pollution than the United States did at a similar stage of development. In other words, we are getting better at getting better.

There’s no doubt that more people with disposable income are a problem for the environment. But when humans aren’t concerned only with having enough water and protein to survive, when basic needs are met, they can think creatively. The feudal world of the Middle Ages was a wasteland compared with the Renaissance, when middle-class artisans and merchants emerged and science and art flourished.

Technology thrives in a middle-class culture – not just jets carrying economy-class passengers or highways feeding suburban development, but also low-emission vehicles, drip irrigation, and teleconferencing. The arts thrive as well. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Aaron Copland felt neither the self-conscious noblesse oblige of the high born nor the desperation of the impoverished. Because of them, we better understand and appreciate each other and our world.

The middle way is not intrinsically virtuous. It can involve overindulgence and beggar-thy-neighbor conflicts. It can make tragically bad choices. But somewhere within the 5 billion middle-classlings forecast for 2030 are individuals who will help us figure out how to keep the planet a balanced, enjoyable habitat. We’re counting on that.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.