consumption factor

In keeping with my recent thoughts on consuming animals and on consuming in general, I'd like to share this essay by Jared Diamond.

I can't say Diamond's name without plugging the two extraordinary books I read by him, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. Collapse is more accessible than Guns, Germs, but I highly recommend reading both. With the first book, it might help to skim some of the numbers-heavy proofs in each chapter. They're not necessary to your understanding of the concepts, and a reader easily could get discouraged. Or, start with Collapse and work your way back to Guns, Germs.

Both books permanently changed the way I see the world. It seems to me that's the greatest compliment you could bestow on any piece of writing.

In this essay in the New York Times, Diamond looks at our prospects for reducing our out-of-control rates of consumption in a finite world. He writes with "we" meaning people in the US, but his points apply to everyone in North America.

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 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 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 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 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.

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.

If you can't access this through the New York Times, it's also available on Common Dreams.


Anonymous said...

Here’s a concept we should all know: peak oil. Peak oil is that point at which at least half of all planetary reserves of oil have been extracted from the ground. Once this point has been reached, increasingly sophisticated and expensive technologies are required for further drilling (think of the Alberta tar sands). Output drops accordingly. Eventually, more energy is required to drill for and refine a barrel of oil than the oil itself produces (1).

The implications of this notion of peak oil for a global economy organized around the concept of unlimited economic growth, with its expectation of an unlimited supply of cheap energy, are ominous indeed. The idea that present rates of consumption can be maintained indefinitely, (again, with its unspoken assumption of an endless supply of cheap energy) and that developing nations can hope to obtain to rates similar to our own, is already causing us to test the earth’s natural limits in such a way that we are pushing them toward a world-wide systemic collapse.

According to research cited recently by the writer Bill McKibben on the subject of human happiness, it takes about USD $10,000, per capita, to meet basic human needs. Once this threshold has been passed, the extent to which money and “more stuff” can make us happier attenuates to ever-diminishing returns. One study quoted shows how a sampling of some of Forbes magazine’s “richest Americans” had scores rating their overall happiness virtually identical to those of Pennsylvania Amish and only slightly higher than those of Masai tribesmen. Correspondingly, increases in the rates of suicide, of divorce and depression, seem to track increases in the rate of consumption by Americans.

What’s worse (affront of all affronts), Europeans consistently score higher than Americans in terms of happiness. But how can this be? Every American knows she makes more money, knows that the United States is the mightiest nation the world has ever known, so how is it that a European can claim more life satisfaction? Well, for one thing, Americans work longer hours than their European counterparts. The more efficient US economy also demands more mobility of its workers. They are expected to move to where the jobs are. Whereas Europeans are far more likely to live closer to the communities in which they grew up. They are more likely to know their neighbors, more likely to possess a stronger sense of community. Sure, Americans do make more money, but they need it: for the extra commuting costs, for child care, more work clothes, for more health care. Simply put: Europeans work to live; Americans live to work.

But where does this leave Canadians? I fear that instead of open debate, we will end up with the kind of foot-dragging acceptance of American direction on this issue--with the ususual time-lag, of course.

laura k said...

Every American knows she makes more money, knows that the United States is the mightiest nation the world has ever known, so how is it that a European can claim more life satisfaction?

Many Americans work those long hours just to survive, because they are not paid a living wage. They do not have access to basic health care, child care, paid vacations or any other benefit.

There are certainly Americans who work long hours and are married to their jobs because they are obsessed with acquisition and consumption, and want wealth and status.

But there are more Americans who toil away for very little.

Both groups spend whatever they have and live beyond their means, often for the same root reason: because their lives are empty of real meaning.

But for the working poor, working less to live better is not an option.

Thank you for your comment, TheIronist3. I assume you copied it in from your own blog or elsewhere (complete with footnote)?

As for where Canada will go with this, we don't know, but we'd have a much better shot at making good choices with Dion at the helm than we do with Harper.

allan said...

Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has become clear that the oceans that once protected the United States no longer do so.

Why is Diamond repeating this inane (and demonstratably incorrect) Bush talking point?

He could make his point just as easily without it -- or by writing something like "the US will remain a terrorist target" as long as this consumption imbalance continues.

laura k said...

Why is Diamond repeating this inane (and demonstratably incorrect) Bush talking point?

He uses it in all his essays. I think it's an easy way to make his point. I assume he's not an expert on 9/11 (or possibly hasn't studied it all), and he has no reason to question the idea.

There's no reason to nitpick his work on that score. He knows that invasions and occupations such as the US waged against Iraq is a consequence of resource consumption and scarcity. He wants to see fewer of those wars, not more of them.

In other words, he's on our side. If he uses 9/11 to make a point, it's not a big deal.

laura k said...

I've also been thinking of Diamond's work a lot in regard to what's happening in Kenya. He reads the Rwandan massacre and many other smaller-scale horrors as a consequence of environmental destruction and the fight for ever-diminishing resources. The Kenyan violence fits the same pattern.

allan said...

I know he's on our side, but it's still an incredibly stupid statement.

He's saying that before 9/11, the oceans protected the US, but not afterwards. ... There was no change to the oceans on 9/11!!!

And the attacks had nothing to do with the ocean. The four planes took off from Boston, New Jersey and Washington, DC, and they flew over land the entire time.

I know what he means -- that people's perception of the US being protected by big bodies of water changed. Hell, Bush himself has been able to blurt it out that way from time to time.

That's why I said there are much better ways to say what he wants to say. He's a better writer than that.

impudent strumpet said...

So now what they need to do is take this consumption factor concept and boil it down to an internet quiz, like they've done for carbon footprints etc. Because at this point the article has me feeling smug for being carfree and vegetarian, and I can't tell from the information given whether that's at all justified.

laura k said...

I know what he means -- that people's perception of the US being protected by big bodies of water changed.

And since you know what he means, and since everyone reading the piece knows what he means, it's needless nitpicking. The bigger picture of his work is far, far more important than the literal meaning of a metaphor or image he uses to make a point.

laura k said...

Because at this point the article has me feeling smug for being carfree and vegetarian, and I can't tell from the information given whether that's at all justified.

Is it ever justified to feel smug?

impudent strumpet said...

Is it ever justified to feel smug?

When the kid who bullied you all throughout school is working a dead-end job and still living with their parents?

When your lover who abandoned you and broke your heart hasn't had sex since they left you (and not for lack of trying)?

When the right-wing asshole's favourite rant be definitively refuted with a single google?

laura k said...

Heh, I love the examples.

For me, those would be reasons to feel vindicated - or triumphant. Maybe I don't naturally experience smugness.

But in those kinds of situations, if smugness happens, then why not.