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.