[DEBATE] : What's Your Consumption Factor?
Riaz K Tayob
riazt at iafrica.com
Sun Jan 6 20:13:36 GMT 2008
<http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/02/opinion/02diamond.html> January 2,
2008 Op-Ed Contributor What's Your Consumption Factor? By JARED DIAMOND
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
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 does.
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 persists.
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
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 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 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.
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