Thursday, January 03, 2008


by Thomas Riggins

People making a New Year's resolution to consume less should bolster their resolve by reading Jared Diamond's "What's Your Consumption Factor?" in Wednesday's New York Times [op-ed 1-2-2008]. However, your or my individual consumption may not make a big difference. Diamond, the author of "Guns, Germs and Steel" and "Collapse", is addressing a civilizational problem regarding the difference in consumption levels between First World countries and the developing world.

To make a long story short, the US and other First World countries account for about one billion people who out consume, on a per capita basis, the 5.5 billion people in the developing world by a factor of 32 to 1. That is we use oil and gas and metals and "produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases" at a rate 32 times that of the non developed world. On this scale of 1 to 32, China is about a 3 and India even lower. So the problem with pollution and depletion is clearly in our back yard.

The problem is the poorer countries want to have a better life style; they want to develop, but it is just impossible for them to catch up to our 32 level. Diamond gives the example of Kenya. Kenya has about 30 million people, its consumption level is 1 while the US with 300 million has a 32 level. We have 10x the population but consume 320x the resources. If the poor countries, including China and India, really attained out advanced consumption levels it would be as if the present 6 billion earth population became 72 billion at present consumption rates. This is impossible since the earth's resources cannot sustain anywhere near the equivalent of 72 billion people.

Therefore, the idea that globalization, honest government, democracy and the free-market will allow poor people to advance gradually to a first world living standard is "a cruel hoax." In fact, China alone will never get to our level, let alone the rest of the non developed world. What can prevent eventual disaster?

Diamond says third world peoples are aware of the consumption disparity between us and them. This leads to the development of, or condoning, of terrorism, it is the real cause of terrorism. "There will be more terrorist attacks against us and Europe, and perhaps against Japan and Australia, as long as that factional difference of 32 in consumption rates persists."

Diamond doesn't say so, but if his thesis is correct, it means the War on Terror is really a preemptive move by the US to maintain its "way of life" by making sure the third world remains backward and exploited. And, there will be a real problem with China as it cannot rise without pulling our 32 level down. At present levels, China's catching up with the US "would roughly double world consumption rates" [and don't forget India!]. "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."

Have we seen something like this before? Dust off your history books. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the advanced countries scrambling for the control of markets and resources not only among themselves, but against new rising powers. This led to two world wars.

Lenin's "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism" is still the best guide to what this entails for the future. Already the US is militarily engaged in the Middle East, having invaded one oil rich country and still threatening another.

Diamond says the only way China and other countries might be induced NOT to try and develop to our levels would be to "make consumption rates and living standards more equal around the world." To stave off and prevent my Leninist vision of Armageddon the US, for example, would have tone down it living standards and share the goodies of the world with the have nots.

Diamond thinks this possible, so he is optimistic about the resolution of this great contradiction between the aspirations of the third world and real politic of the first. The "world doesn't have enough resources to allow for raising China's consumption rates, let alone the rest of the world, to our levels. Does this mean we are headed for disaster?"

Diamond says "No." Better planning is all that is needed. In fact "Real sacrifice won't be required." We can have our cake and eat it too. Americans are wasteful. Western Europe uses 50% less per capita oil and gas than the US, yet their living standards are higher than ours. We could conceivably, by better planning, reduce our oil consumption by 50% and still raise or maintain our living standards (more or less, no more Hummers).

Other examples, from Diamond, of misused resources that are about to collapse but could be maintained by proper management are the world's fisheries and forests. All we lack, he tells us is the "political will."

What is the problem here? We have just seen the EPA shoot down California and other states' attempt to impose fuel efficiency standards on automobiles. The fisheries and forests will, presumedly, continue to be overexploited (we have known about this for years yet it continues.).

The basis of capitalism is maximizing profits. Exxon-Mobile and other corporations are not going to give up market share and profits to make the world a fair place for everyone. That is just not the nature of capitalism. What Diamond is asking for is a world wide regime based on central planning that could rationally allot and share the world's resources. Who could administer such a regime. The United Nations? Is there any hope that the US or any other of the major capitalist powers would cede their economic sovereignty to the UN or any other transnational organization and renounce the "free-market" as the means for regulating globalization in favor of a central planning and management scheme?

Reality may force this upon the world and my hunch is that if it does it will be rather messy. A specter is haunting Europe once again.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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