The Optimist

The Cultural Evolution

The baggage we carry from our ethnic and national backgrounds can keep people poor -- but it can also change, and faster than you'd think.

As hundreds of same-sex couples swapped vows two weeks ago on the day that their weddings became legally recognized in New York, commentators took the opportunity to marvel once more at the dramatic change in U.S. public attitudes toward gay marriage over the past decade, with support climbing from less than one-third to more than half of the public in just seven years. It is usually thought that such rapid shifts in cultural values are very rare -- which can be a problem when the cultural shift you're talking about is a much-needed evolution in attitudes toward class or race, the sort of thing that can bring entire populations out of a discriminatory economic sinkhole. But actually, rapid cultural change isn't nearly as unusual as people think.

Culture is intimately connected with development outcomes, affecting everything from the way people do business to the way they interact with disenfranchised groups. For example, groups that enjoyed high literacy rates and good political institutions in the 19th century are more likely to enjoy higher incomes in the 21st. The social and political traits of pre-colonial ethnic groups that dominated particular areas of Africa may matter more to current income levels in those areas than which modern country they are found in. That's in part because culture can upset efforts to reform economic systems. When states try to impose institutions like land titling, for instance, in areas where there are strong traditional rules about how such things work, New York University economist William Easterly suggests the traditional rules often win out. And culture's deep roots can have more pernicious effects as well: Economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth observe that if your ancestors persecuted Jews in the 14th century, you were more likely to be a Nazi in the 1920s and 1930s.

And then there's India's caste system, one of the world's most powerful and oft-cited examples of culturally imposed inequality. The Dalit caste, traditionally known as "untouchables" and historically relegated to "unclean" work such as leatherwork and handling feces, makes up a little under one-sixth of India's population. Discrimination on the grounds of caste was banned by the country's 1950 post-independence constitution, and the government has created numerous programs since then to ensure low-caste political representation and improve Dalit social and economic status. But despite all best intentions, Dalits still remain less well-off across a range of measures.

Indians still overwhelmingly choose to marry within caste. Teachers given performance incentives based on student test scores spend less time trying to teach low caste students. Even low-caste teachers in India mark student tests lower when they know the students are low-caste, and Dalit students themselves perform worse on tests when reminded of their status beforehand. After they leave school, low-caste graduates with the same qualifications earn less money. And Dalits are disproportionately poor and in bad health.

The good news is that even cultures with 1,000-year roots can alter dramatically under the right circumstances. Research by development economists Devesh Kapur, Lant Pritchett, Chandra Bhan Prasad, and Shyam Babu suggests that discrimination against the low caste, while still potent, is considerably on the wane. A survey designed and led by members of the Dalit community in two areas of Uttar Pradesh found that attitudes and behaviors related to the low status of Dalits had been widely tempered or abandoned over the last 20 years. Dalit respondents report that since 1990, they are far more likely to sit next to high-caste guests at weddings rather than being seated separately, they are no longer expected to handle the dead animals of other castes, and non-Dalit midwives will attend births in Dalit households. They have moved in large numbers into nontraditional professions like tailoring and driving, and almost none still work as indentured servants for high-caste patrons, as was once common.

The changes are huge. In Bulandshahr district, less than 4 percent of Dalits said that non-Dalits would eat in their households in 1990, but nearly half said that they would today. In 1990, 73 percent of respondents suggested that only Dalits handled dead animals; that fraction in 2007 was one in 20. The proportion of the surveyed Dalit population that said most or all girls in the household went to school in 1990 was 7 percent. In 2007 it had climbed to 57 percent.

Economically, while Dalits are still worse off than other castes, they are considerably less so than they were in 1990. The proportion with a television in Bulandshahr climbed from seven in 1,000 to nearly one-half, and bicycle ownership leaped from around one-third to over four-fifths. Nonetheless, the researchers suggest that the transformation is far too dramatic to be accounted for by income changes alone -- the shift is a cultural one, too. "This is not to suggest," they caution, "that caste has disappeared as a social construct. It is very much alive." Nonetheless, Dalits today are experiencing not just far greater prosperity, but also greater social acceptance.

It isn't just castes in India, of course. You can't explain the increase in female secondary enrollment in low- and middle-income countries from 42 to 50 percent over the past decade, or the halving in the average number of kids a woman has in the developing world from 5.4 to 2.7 between 1970 and today, without talking about rapidly, dramatically shifting values.

For all that culture might have a role in determining relative attitudes and perhaps even relative levels of development, then, it isn't a dead hand blocking all progress. In fact, cultural change appears to be part of a global and historically unprecedented virtuous cycle of improving quality of life that encompasses growing incomes but spreads far beyond to things like lower crime and violence, more widespread education, improved health, and the increasing ubiquity of democratic values and respect for civil rights.

Indeed, to return to the 21st century phenomenon of same-sex marriage, discrimination against homosexuals is yet one more area where we are seeing signs of progress. Even while a married lesbian couple in India had to flee threats of honor killings in India last month, World Values Survey results find that the proportion of Indians saying homosexuality is "never justifiable" has halved in less than 20 years, from 89 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2008.

That discriminatory culture appears on the wane suggests two things. First, quality of life is heading in the right direction for minority groups worldwide. And, second, this change will be to the world's great benefit in terms of improved development outcomes. It is not just Dalits and gays who should be happy about the way things are headed -- it is all of us.

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The Optimist

Greening It Alone

The world is building a low-carbon global economy -- with or without the United States.

It may be hard to remember amid all the news of decline, but in plenty of areas, the United States is still the world's leader. You can't propose global banking regulation without buy-in from Wall Street. And if you want to invade somewhere far away, it's probably best to have America front and center, or at least ferrying troops and supplies. But when it comes to responding to the biggest global challenge of the 21st century, the United States is no longer even first among equals. And given the complete paralysis in Washington, that's a relief.

I'm speaking about climate change, which has emerged as the most intractable issue for a U.S. Congress that apparently can't manage anything more exciting than naming a post office without threatening the country with default. With the U.S. House of Representatives busy trying to zero out aid financing for activities related to climate change and delaying any domestic regulation of carbon dioxide emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency, it would be hard to imagine how the phrases "U.S. leadership" and "global climate change" could be used in the same sentence without the word "absent" making an appearance. To be fair to House Republicans, however, it isn't as if two Democratic chambers and President Barack Obama did much better prior to the midterm elections -- which suggests that this isn't a problem that might just go away in 18 months.

But before you pack up the kids and move to higher ground to avoid rising sea levels, consider this: China's fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles are already around 25 percent tougher than those in the United States. The country generated 667 terawatt-hours of electricity from hydro, wind, and nuclear electricity in 2009, a 50 percent increase on four years earlier (and 10 percent more than Brazil's or India's current annual electricity consumption). China already accounts for one-quarter of the world's installed capacity of wind, small-scale hydro, biomass, solar, geothermal, and marine power facilities. And the overall amount of energy used to produce a dollar of GDP in China has dropped 5 percent every year since 1980, according to Qi Ye at the Climate Policy Initiative in Beijing.

China's attempt at a green leap forward isn't entirely new news -- but this isn't just a Chinese story. Developing countries as a whole accounted for two-thirds of the growth in renewable and nuclear power generating capacity worldwide between 2002 and 2008, according to my colleague David Wheeler at the Center for Global Development. The developing world is now home to more than half of the world's renewable energy generating capacity, and it is likely to extend that lead.

Going forward, Wheeler reports that India is planning to generate 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, up from less than 2 percent today. Ten thousand megawatts of that -- a little under 10 percent -- would come from new solar energy installations (to put that in perspective, that's more than total global solar photovoltaic capacity in 2007). At the U.N. global warming conference in Cancún, Mexico, last year, developing countries pledged to restrict their carbon emissions considerably more than did rich country delegations. In particular, China's promised reductions from what would happen under "business as usual" were a lot larger than promises made by the United States. Indeed, in the U.S. case, some calculations suggest the pledge may amount to the commitment to do nothing, which sounds all too plausible.

You wouldn't have guessed developing countries were taking the lead on counteracting climate change given the caterwauling about harm to U.S. competitiveness that accompanies discussion of greenhouse gas regulation in Washington, but it is true. They're motivated by a mix of wanting to stave off climate change and wanting to develop renewable industries, and they benefit from energy and industrial sectors with less installed capacity as a proportion of future demand -- which means less entrenched opposition to higher standards. And that's good news, because while the United States accounts for three times China's carbon dioxide contribution to the atmosphere to date, today China is the largest carbon emitter in the world. India and the rest of the developing world are fast climbing the ranks, as well. Without developing country leadership, we'd all be sunk (literally, in the case of Vanuatu).

What's good news for those already baking in the tropics and getting their feet wet on low-lying island nations, though, may not be so wonderful for America. There is a strong element of self-interest in India's and China's investments -- beyond reducing the effects of climate change on their own people, the scale of their renewable energy programs is large enough that the countries are becoming leaders in manufacturing green technologies. China is already the world's largest producer of wind turbines and solar cells. And it isn't just new industries. If the United States doesn't start to catch up, it will be hard to retrofit American-designed gas-guzzling vehicles to run on the roads anywhere else -- a real concern now that General Motors sells more cars in China than it does in the United States. The new mileage standards recently agreed between the White House and auto-makers would help -- but (inevitably), the House of Representatives has already begun investigating whether those standards will "limit consumer choice."

Surely some will enjoy the irony that American intransigence to act on climate change -- based in part on fears of global competitiveness -- may itself be a cause of U.S. firms being unable to compete. But it would be better for America, and much better for the planet, if the United States started to regulate and invest toward a low-carbon future today. Even with developing country commitments at Cancún, we're a long way from a path toward a sustainable level of global emissions, and the United States will have to be a part of that path. So most of the world would happily swap out schadenfreude for pleasant surprise were the U.S. government to act -- and pay its fair share.

But the good news for the planet is that the rest of the world -- including developing countries -- isn't waiting on a global agreement blessed by the United States to invest in green technologies. With the ice caps melting up north, some worry we might be heading toward a unipolar world. Thankfully, the global response to climate change looks distinctly multipolar. And at some point, if the United States doesn't come into line, the rest of the planet will start finding ways to encourage it. One obvious response would be taxing U.S. exports to take into account their carbon footprint -- an approach the United States itself has suggested with regard to its imports if it ever got its act together to tax domestic greenhouse gas emissions. At that point, years behind in investing in energy efficiency and facing significant tariffs on exports, coddled American industries would really understand what it meant to be uncompetitive.

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