Can we take it as a given that the earth can't support 8 billion middle class people who want cars and air conditioning? If we can't, then you might look at Jeff Vail's latest post on Jevon's paradox and the new Tata Nano here:www.jeffvail.net , but I'm not sure it really needs to be articulated. There are some techno-optimists out there who think that energy and money are the only things that we need to all be rich, but the truth is that all economic output is polluting, and all economic output draws down natural resources to one degree or another. You can refine the degree, but growth eats it up.
So starting from that position, we have, as I see it, three choices. The first is to repress the aspirations of those who wish to join us in the middle class. There are two problems with this. The first is that we can't - our economic power days are over, and we can't control the growth of other economies. In fact, right now, other economies largely control us. The second being that even if we could, this would be both wrong and politically unpalatable. That is, growth capitalism has long told everyone that they can be rich, and thus allowed a majority of the populace to believe, however falsely, that opportunity simply hadn't knocked for the vast number of poor people. That is, economics erases intentionality and a whole host of truths, and tells us that we're doing our very best to make poor people richer. A change over to a dynamic in which we had to openly admit that we want to exploit the poor and make them poorer so that we can get richer would be politically difficult - ignoring, of course, the moral issue. This also makes for all sorts of good excuses for people to blow things up.
The second choice, and the one that we presently seem set on, is the creation of a different middle class, from the wealth of the old middle class. That is, we can gradually (or not very gradually) impoverish the old rich, and replace them with new rich from what was the poorer world. Several studies have suggested that in fact much of China's growth has come at the expense of America's working class. This has the advantage of greater equity, but isn't very much fun for the former rich (us) and comes with political consequences, and probably military ones as well, since the former rich still hold on to a lot of big guns.
The third choice is this - we come up with a new set of aspirations. That is, we find something compelling to hope and dream about that everyone in the world pretty much can have. And we teach our children to aspire to that goal, and offer it up to the world as we have offered the dream of affluence, and hope to G-d it takes hold.
What could that be? I know a very elderly woman whose daughter told me that her mother had once told her that what she hoped would be said about her on her death was "She never said anything unkind to anyone, and she welcomed everyone who came to her door." And it made me think about what the aspirations of prior generations have been. It isn't that our eulogies are sufficient to address this, but they provide a way of getting at the essence of what we want to accomplish.
That is, it was common for prior generations to be content that they had never taken a handout, put money in the bank each year, and tithed some of their income. Or to take pride in having worked every day of their lives, to have earned and received respect, to have been able to do business on their handshake and sense of honor, to have always had food on the table for their children and clothes on their back, and to grow to be good men and women.
To an extent, these past ambitions may be overstated - the romanticization of the past is always a danger. But we all know people, mostly much older people, for whom these really sufficient goals. Our own goals are often much more ambitious, and thus much harder to balance. And I suspect most of our aspirations are harder to achieve - that is, we much less often achieve them than if we'd aspired to smaller things.
There was an obituary here of an older man a few years ago. It read, "He never missed a milking or a (Quaker) meeting in 60 years. He never borrowed money, but lent or gave what he had. He died in the house and the bed he was born in, tended by his children, who loved him, and received, we believe, by his God." Aspiration indeed.