Friday, January 18, 2008


I like it so I'm blogging in full. Thanks Marcy


What's Your Consumption Factor?

Published: January 2, 2008
Los Angeles

TO mathematicians, 32 is an interesting number: it's 2 raised to the fifth
power, 2 times 2 times 2 times 2 times 2. To economists, 32 is even more
special, because it measures the difference in lifestyles between the first
world and the developing world. The average rates at which people consume
resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and
greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in North America, Western
Europe, Japan and Australia than they are in the developing world. That
factor of 32 has big consequences.

To understand them, consider our concern with world population. Today, there
are more than 6.5 billion people, and that number may grow to around 9
billion within this half-century. Several decades ago, many people
considered rising population to be the main challenge facing humanity. Now
we realize that it matters only insofar as people consume and produce.

If most of the world's 6.5 billion people were in cold storage and not
metabolizing or consuming, they would create no resource problem. What
really matters is total world consumption, the sum of all local
consumptions, which is the product of local population times the local per
capita consumption rate.

The estimated one billion people who live in developed countries have a
relative per capita consumption rate of 32. Most of the world's other 5.5
billion people constitute the developing world, with relative per capita
consumption rates below 32, mostly down toward 1.

The population especially of the developing world is growing, and some
people remain fixated on this. They note that populations of countries like
Kenya are growing rapidly, and they say that's a big problem. Yes, it is a
problem for Kenya's more than 30 million people, but it's not a burden on
the whole world, because Kenyans consume so little. (Their relative per
capita rate is 1.) A real problem for the world is that each of us 300
million Americans consumes as much as 32 Kenyans. With 10 times the
population, the United States consumes 320 times more resources than Kenya

People in the third world are aware of this difference in per capita
consumption, although most of them couldn't specify that it's by a factor of
32. When they believe their chances of catching up to be hopeless, they
sometimes get frustrated and angry, and some become terrorists, or tolerate
or support terrorists. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has become clear that the
oceans that once protected the United States no longer do so. There will be
more terrorist attacks against us and Europe, and perhaps against Japan and
Australia, as long as that factorial difference of 32 in consumption rates

People who consume little want to enjoy the high-consumption lifestyle.
Governments of developing countries make an increase in living standards a
primary goal of national policy. And tens of millions of people in the
developing world seek the first-world lifestyle on their own, by emigrating,
especially to the United States and Western Europe, Japan and Australia.
Each such transfer of a person to a high-consumption country raises world
consumption rates, even though most immigrants don't succeed immediately in
multiplying their consumption by 32.

Among the developing countries that are seeking to increase per capita
consumption rates at home, China stands out. It has the world's fastest
growing economy, and there are 1.3 billion Chinese, four times the United
States population. The world is already running out of resources, and it
will do so even sooner if China achieves American-level consumption rates.
Already, China is competing with us for oil and metals on world markets.

Per capita consumption rates in China are still about 11 times below ours,
but let's suppose they rise to our level. Let's also make things easy by
imagining that nothing else happens to increase world consumption - that is,
no other country increases its consumption, all national populations
(including China's) remain unchanged and immigration ceases. China's
catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil
consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal
consumption by 94 percent.

If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would
triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates
would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned
to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

Some optimists claim that we could support a world with nine billion people
But I haven't met anyone crazy enough to claim that we could support 72
billion. Yet we often promise developing countries that if they will only
adopt good policies - for example, institute honest government and a
free-market economy - they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world
lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having
difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even now for only one billion

We Americans may think of China's growing consumption as a problem. But the
Chinese are only reaching for the consumption rate we already have. To tell
them not to try would be futile.

The only approach that China and other developing countries will accept is
to aim to make consumption rates and living standards more equal around the
world. But the world doesn't have enough resources to allow for raising
China's consumption rates, let alone those of the rest of the world, to our
levels. Does this mean we're headed for disaster?

No, we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on
consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels. Americans
might object: there is no way we would sacrifice our living standards for
the benefit of people in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, whether we get
there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because
our present rates are unsustainable.

Real sacrifice wouldn't be required, however, because living standards are
not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is
wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example,
per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet
Western Europe's standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion,
including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care,
financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public
schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans' wasteful
use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.

Other aspects of our consumption are wasteful, too. Most of the world's
fisheries are still operated non-sustainably, and many have already
collapsed or fallen to low yields - even though we know how to manage them
in such a way as to preserve the environment and the fish supply. If we were
to operate all fisheries sustainably, we could extract fish from the oceans
at maximum historical rates and carry on indefinitely.

The same is true of forests: we already know how to log them sustainably,
and if we did so worldwide, we could extract enough timber to meet the
world's wood and paper needs. Yet most forests are managed non-sustainably,
with decreasing yields.

Just as it is certain that within most of our lifetimes we'll be consuming
less than we do now, it is also certain that per capita consumption rates in
many developing countries will one day be more nearly equal to ours. These
are desirable trends, not horrible prospects. In fact, we already know how
to encourage the trends; the main thing lacking has been political will

Fortunately, in the last year there have been encouraging signs. Australia
held a recent election in which a large majority of voters reversed the
head-in-the-sand political course their government had followed for a
decade; the new government immediately supported the Kyoto Protocol on
cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Also in the last year, concern about climate change has increased greatly in
the United States. Even in China, vigorous arguments about environmental
policy are taking place, and public protests recently halted construction of
a huge chemical plant near the center of Xiamen. Hence I am cautiously
optimistic. The world has serious consumption problems, but we can solve
them if we choose to do so.

Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los
Angeles, is the author of "Collapse" and "Guns, Germs and Steel."

1 comment:

Steve Bloom said...

"The world is already running out of resources, and it will do so even sooner if China achieves American-level consumption rates."

This implies, probably unintentionally, that the big resource crunch will come *after* China has achieved such levels. Quite a bit sooner than than, I think.