Most development strategies today are based on or towards ‘the good life’ or the lifestyle modeled by affluent Western societies. According to the ‘catching-up development path’, poor countries all over the world could easily attain ‘the good life’ by “following the same path of industrialization and capital accumulation taken by Europe and the USA and Japan.” Basically they mean that they’re just behind and they need to catch up. However, history has proven that the catching up development path has never attained its desired goal. This is due to many things, but the most obvious is that underdeveloped countries have been at a disadvantage ever since colonialism.

Underdeveloped nations did not become impoverished by chance or by natural circumstances: a structured colonial system drained these countries of resources and independence which disadvantaged them almost indefinitely. They were made dependent on their metropoles and in turn lost their own social and cultural identities.

Ironically, now the same countries who dominated these undeveloped nations are looked to as the ‘utopia of liberalism’ and success. Interesting considering the means they used to get where they are today. The catching-up development path would not be possible for underdeveloped countries because they do not have colonies to capitalize on. The very progress of affluent colonizer societies has been at the expense of exploited colonies. The Western world has been able to become so wealthy because they externalized their costs to colonies, and the West was able to gain massive amounts of profit from dirt-cheap material and labor prices.

As environmental consequences and lack of resources become more and more evident worldwide, there is still a lack of responsibility being taken by the Western powers who are committing the overconsumption. Many expect a technological solution to come to the rescue, without realizing that the only sustainable solution is a reduction in the indulgent consumer-based lifestyle.

“The belief that a high material living standard is tantamount to a good or high quality of life is essential to uphold and legitimize the constant growth and accumulation model of modern industrial society.”- Mies

The current economy could not stand without the social value on materialistic living – and this is why even though we know consumerism is destroying the planet, we continue to indulge and model this “good life” for other countries to strive towards. But, there is no way that the Earth could sustainably support the Western lifestyle on a large scale. Six percent of the world’s population lives in the US and thirty percent of all of fossil fuel energy is consumed by them; how would the remaining 94% (80% of them being in underdeveloped countries) be able to live on this level of consumption?  The catching-up development myth provides a solution that is a material impossibility.

Despite the physical costs, has this ‘good life’ of consumerism succeeded in making people happy? As the GDP has grown, has the quality of life as well? In fact, “there seems to be an inverse relationship between GDP and the quality of life: the more the GDP grows, the more the quality of life deteriorates.” As people look to industrialization as the tool that will help demolish poverty, cities are being filled with countryside migrants. These urban centers are polluted and choked with traffic and lacking in any sources of nature. But cities are portrayed as the luxurious hub of wealth and success, where development is happening and people are being pulled out of poverty. If cities are so wonderful, then why don’t people want to spend their vacations there?

Basically, the consumer model of the rich countries is not generalizable worldwide, and it should not be a desirable goal either. The catching-up development path will only lead to further social and environmental destruction. The only way to stop it is to debunk the myth of catching-up development and instead move towards a huge reduction of consumption and a drastic lifestyle change. What does this mean?

Personally I think it’s going to entail a huge economic shift in not only my country (the United States) but the entire world. Capitalism may have helped grow the planet and support us before, but capitalism cannot and will not remain to be the reigning system. The values that our society needs, craves, and is moving towards, will lead to the downfall of capitalism as we know it today.

Povery is not an easy fix. Donated money is not the answer. And ‘underdeveloped’ countries will never catch up by following the path that the Western world has taken.

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