More commentary on "The Phosphate Dilemma"

Over at U.S. Food Policy, Parke:
A reader asks by email how the train wreck can be avoided.

Some tentative thoughts: Best thing is to eat with lower environmental impact (especially less meat). Also, good environmental regulation of phosphate mining and remediation worldwide is wise, even if it then makes phosphate fertilizer more expensive. That higher price of fertilizer then feeds a response from farmers who can weigh the production advantages and cost disadvantages of increased application more wisely.
Parke, is there any applicable thinking in academia on how to overcome the "race to the bottom"-type disincentives for country-level environmental regulation? (e.g., if everywhere else has strict environmental regulation, a given poor country has an incentive to avoid it if the lower costs mean they can produce more fertilizer and thus generate more revenue and employment)

Obviously this applies widely to extractive industries in general, not just phosphate fertilizer... maybe there are parallels from international labor standards?
The most common U.S. center left answer to that question is to include labor and environmental standards as part of trade negotiations.

That's fine with me, but my attention is elsewhere.

The long-term solution to the "race to the bottom" is truly to lift the bottom. Good environmental regulation is a product of middle class democratic politics. There is an anti-trade and isolationist strand in progressive American politics, based on a deep pessimism that things will ever be any better in poor countries. That's not my strand. I hold out more hope for robust middle classes in India and China and Mexico, who can demand good environmental rules.

Recently, I loved reading about the modern Tata apartment design in Mumbia, India. Realistically or not, it generated a daydream about a million young people in Mumbia, wearing hip clothes, eating good (mostly vegetarian) food, living in tiny but fashionable apartments, flirting, watching cool shows and listening to cool music on small electronic devices, enjoying nightclubs, though being too poor to afford a car.

If that is the future we hope for Indian and Chinese youth, it would be just to try to envision something similar for our own children. I really am not sure our grandchildren will have a good world to live in, but if they do, it will probably look like that.
I like this vision in the long term. But that said, bringing about economic prosperity and vibrant democracy takes place on the timescale of decades, and it's possible to do a lot of environmental damage in a few decades. Indeed, some countries see some environmental degradation as central to developing their economies, and rich-country environmental regulations as a plot to stop them from doing just that. So there's still a need for innovative thinking and pragmatic solutions in the shorter term.

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