Chile is very different from almost every other country I have traveled across for one reason: the economy here is stable and growing.
When I first crossed into Chile from Bolivia, I was shocked to bike to a mall and see a large selection of wide screen TVs. Biking across Chile, I have been surprised by new highways and new housing complexes for a middle class. Little things on this trip keep on shocking me – like camping next to a house in the countryside and having one of the kids pull out a six mega pixel camera to take my picture. I am writing this right now using a laptop borrowed from the family I am staying with, surfing the internet on their WiFi.
There is still much poverty in Chile – like the rest of Latin America, it is incredibly unequal—but the country is, more or less, growing its economy. A quick look at the statistics of income growth per person over the past 30 years shows that Chile’s per person income has grown at almost 4% per year. No other country I have biked across has grown even half as fast, and in some places, such as Peru and Venezuela, the average person is poorer than they were 30 years ago.
To be sure, Chileans I talk to are very critical of their own growth. They often complain it is not equal (minimum wage is still only $200 a month) or that it is not ecological (a lot of growth is based off of natural resource extraction), and, above, all, they don’t like it when I make any comparison, good or bad, between Chile and other Latin American countries. But, I will do it anyway: the average Chilean is far better off economically than the average citizen of almost every other country I have biked through. (Possible exceptions of Argentina and Costa Rica.)
Chile is achieving what so many people who I have seen across Latin America want – more wealth. On the whole, this is good, and it makes me feel comfortable to be somewhere where there is a large middle class.
There is a flip side, though, to this growth. Comparing how carbon dioxide emissions through fossil fuel use have grown over the past 20 years, you can what effect this has had. The average Chilean produces almost 50% more carbon dioxide from fossil fuels then 20 years ago. In every other country, the number has barely changed.
I can see, here in Chile, lots of new cars and construction. New wealth has brought more electricity use and more driving. If all of world were to achieve what Chile has achieved, the atmosphere simply couldn’t take it.
So, what do we do? To me, the answer seems clear: we need to find new technologies to replace fossil fuels as soon as possible before these poorer countries develop.