Thursday, January 3, 2008

Diamond asks 'What’s Your Consumption Factor?'

Diamond writes about the ancient Moai on Easter Island in 'Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed' (Photo: Tomas Munita/New York Times)

Jared Diamond is the noted author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” which emphasizes the serious consequences of deforestation. As a geographer who also happens to be a Malthusian theorist, his ideas are sometimes considered controversial. A recent article stated that “through the wide-angle lenses of [Diamond’s] books, people appear not as thinking agents motivated by dreams and desires, ideas and ideologies, but as pawns of their environment” and “some anthropologists saw [‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’] as excusing the excesses of the conquerors...If it wasn’t their genes that made them do it, it was their geography.”

In his Jan. 2 article “What’s Your Consumption Factor?” Diamond writes that the average rate at which people consume resources like oil and metals and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases is 32 times higher in North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia than in the developing world. So the estimated 1 billion people who live in developed countries have a relative per capita consumption rate of 32, while the other 5.5 billion people in the developing world have relative per capita consumption rates closer to 1.

He notes, for example, that each of the 300 million Americans consumes as much as 32 Kenyans, so with 10 times the population the US consumes 320 times more resources than Kenya. Diamond adds that China stands out among the developing countries that are seeking to increase per capita consumption, since it has the world’s fastest growing economy and there are 1.3 billion Chinese. “The world is already running out of resources, and it will do so even sooner if China achieves American-level consumption,” he writes.

“Per capita consumption rates in China are still about 11 times below ours, but let’s suppose they rise to our level,” he continues, adding that 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, world consumption rates would increase by a factor of 11.

“It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates),” writes Diamond. “Some optimists claim that we could support a world with 9 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 1 billion people.”

After outlining this grim scenario, Diamond concludes that we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates below current levels. “Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates,” he reveals. “Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life…Whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates because our present rates are unsustainable.”