Thanks to UCLA Professor Jared Diamond for providing the facts and most of the reasoning to be found in the following synopsis of his recent article in the N.Y. Times.
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 has big consequences. To understand those consequences, consider world population. Today, there are more than 6.5 billion people, and that number will probably grow to around 9 billion within 50 years unless some kind of radical steps are taken.
Several decades ago, many people considered rising population to be the main challenge facing humanity. Actually it matters only insofar as society is organized in a way that encourages (and in a sense forces) people to consume and produce ever more rather than less. (Proof: If most of the world's 6.5 billion people were in long-term hibernation and not metabolizing or consuming, they would obviously create no resource problem. What really matters is total world consumption, i.e. 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 well below 32 -- mostly down toward 1.
Some people remain fixated on population growth in the developing world. 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. Why not? Because Kenyans consume so little. (Their relative per-capita consumption rate is 1.) The 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 does.
People in the third world are of course aware of this difference in per capita consumption. When they believe their chances of catching up to be hopeless, they sometimes get frustrated and angry, and some become terrorists, or they tolerate or support terrorists. For these reasons there will surely be more terrorist attacks against us, and probably against Europe, and perhaps even against Japan and Australia.
Obviously people who consume little want to enjoy our high-consumption lifestyle. No surprise then that governments of developing countries make an increase-in-living-standards a primary goal of national policy. No surprise, either, that 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. Problem is, each such transfer of a person to a high-consumption country raises world consumption rates.
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. But the world is already running out of resources, and it will do this even sooner as China approaches American-level consumption rates -- as is happening. Already, China is competing with us for oil and metals on world markets, even though per capita consumption rates in China are still a relatively small fraction of ours.
However, for the sake of making an important point, let's suppose their rates of consumption rise to our level in the next decade or two. 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.
Understand that China's catching up alone would then roughly DOUBLE . WORLD . CONSUMPTION . RATES, i.e. oil consumption would increase by 106%, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94%.
If India, as well as China, were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. And if the whole developing world were to catch up with us, world consumption rates would increase eleven-fold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).
Optimists claim that we could support a world with nine billion people. But who is crazy enough to claim 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, of course, a cruel hoax. Why? Because we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle, even now, for only one billion people.
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 continue trying would of course 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, by reducing ours: The world simply doesn't have enough resources to allow for China raising its consumption rates to our levels, let alone having the rest of the developing world raise theirs, also, to our levels.
Does this standoff mean we're inevitably headed for ecocide and/or world war?
Not necessarily. We could, theoretically, have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels. However, most Americans would surely object; there is no way they would sacrifice their living standards for the benefit of people in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, whether we get there willingly or not, it is a certainty that we shall soon have lower median consumption rates in the USA, one way or another! Why? For the simple reason that, as we have seen, our present rates are unsustainable in the face of continuing growth in the developing world.
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