Jared Diamond and the Consumption Factor

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. (1/2/08) 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 currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Donald Hawkins said on January 7th, 2008 at 2:28pm #

    Thomas that was very interesting. One little problem climate change. It doesn’t matter who put the carbon into the atmosphere it is now there. We have to start here in the States first and fast. It will be as tuff as World War Two and maybe tuffer. United States, China, India all countries working together one goal produce energy without fossil fuels. Can this be done maybe. We only have about 8 years to make this real. The technology we have now will get us close but it has to be a total focus. Will that happen good question. You talk about China well in just about two years China is going to have big problems with water and food. If you go to this web site it tells part of the problem and remember two years things are going to start to go haywire in China in the States not as bad but still not much fun. Still time. http://www.forbes.com/opinions/2008/01/04/poyang-lake-china-oped-cx_cob_0106poyang.html

  2. Donald Hawkins said on January 7th, 2008 at 2:49pm #

    In Lovelock’s view, the scale of the catastrophe that awaits us will soon become obvious. By 2020, droughts and other extreme weather will be commonplace. By 2040, the Sahara will be moving into Europe, and Berlin will be as hot as Baghdad. Atlanta will end up a kudzu jungle. Phoenix will become uninhabitable, as will parts of Beijing (desert), Miami (rising seas) and London (floods). Food shortages will drive millions of people north, raising political tensions. “The Chinese have nowhere to go but up into Siberia,” Lovelock says. “How will the Russians feel about that? I fear that war between Russia and China is probably inevitable.” With hardship and mass migrations will come epidemics, which are likely to kill millions. By 2100, Lovelock believes, the Earth’s population will be culled from today’s 6.6 billion to as few as 500 million, with most of the survivors living in the far latitudes — Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, the Arctic Basin.

    By the end of the century, according to Lovelock, global warming will cause temperate zones like North America and Europe to heat up by fourteen degrees Fahrenheit, nearly double the likeliest predictions of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations-sanctioned body that includes the world’s top scientists. “Our future,” Lovelock writes, “is like that of the passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail.” And switching to energy-efficient light bulbs won’t save us. To Lovelock, cutting greenhouse-gas pollution won’t make much difference at this point, and much of what passes for sustainable development is little more than a scam to profit off disaster. “Green,” he tells me, only half-joking, “is the color of mold and corruption.” James Lovlock

    Now what Lovelock just said what are the chances he’s right. If you would have talked with scientists only two years ago they would say 30 years to start getting carbon levels down. Ask them today 8 to 10 years. The data from the summer of 2007 was a real eye opener to say the least. There is still time but it has to be a total focus.

  3. Donald Hawkins said on January 7th, 2008 at 9:21pm #

    The year was 2525 and about a hundred people were on a very large ship traveling through the Universe. A few people were in the coffee house on the ship looking out the window. Yes they still had coffee in 2525. As they looked out they could see hydrogen clouds hundreds of light years wide. Black holes that were interesting from a distance. Solar systems that could support life. Quite a site to see. The conversation this night in the coffee house was how they had come so far to be able to see these wonders of the Universe. One person said it all started in the early twenty first century because of climate change. A total focus to find new energy sources was started they had to or civilization was lost. Not only did they find new energy sources but countries learned to work together and people learned to work together. It was hard at first but things got better from that time on and here we are now on this ship that can travel at the speed of light. Well as they drank there coffee time passed and then someone pointed out the window at a gray planet. Look at that planet it looks like ours except it’s gray not blue. One of the old men said yes that planet is exactly like ours to the year. For some reason we are not sure of at the start of there twenty first century climate change burning fossil fuels was ignored and the best we can tell by the year 2120 most life on that planet was gone. The planet kept changing and what you see now is gray and lifeless. All they had to do was use the knowledge they had at the time. Then someone asked what is the name of that planet. The old man said,”Earth”, and with that the ship turned to there home at light speed.

    Did anybody notice the weather in the middle part of the United States the last few days. Get use to it. No don’t get use to it we need to start using our minds fight back. Britney Spears how is she doing. Can Dr. Phill help her what does it all mean. What does O’Reilly think, I mean Oh really. We have to start using our minds.

  4. Mike McNiven said on January 10th, 2008 at 4:35am #

    Free market capitalism is ruinning lives here and abroad.

    Please see what some people have to do to put food on the table:


  5. Brian Koontz said on January 17th, 2008 at 11:47pm #

    I wouldn’t be concerned with this. America is already bankrupting itself (it’s taxpayers who are the only funding source the elite enjoy tapping), and once the inevitable and large-scale economic collapse occurs Americans will no longer be consuming in mass quantities.

    The most useful thing that consuming less *now* does is to prepare Americans for the day when they have no choice but to consume less.

    It’s certainly not “impossible” for other countries to catch up to America. The American elite have nothing left but a war machine, and the world is unifying against that machine as we speak. The American government will be defeated soon, the “American multinationals” will simply move out of the country (as Halliburton has already done) and the American people will be left to pick up the pieces and build a new society.

    America as we know it is on it’s last legs. Which is mostly a good thing, but it will have repercussions none of us yet understand.

  6. savyasaachi said on August 23rd, 2008 at 4:56am #

    The planet’s population continues to explode: from 1 billion in 1820, to 2 billion in 1930, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1988, and 6 billion in 2000, and 6,602,224,175 by July 2007 .

    “The population in developing countries is growing, but since they consume so little, it’s not a burden on the world. The real burden lies in the consumption of the one billion people who live in developed countries, who consume and produce waste at 32 times higher than in developing world. If the entire developing world were to catch up, world consumption would increase eleven-fold….We can solve the ecological crisis when all countries agree to converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels….A real world problem is that each of the 300 million Americans consumes as much as 32 Kenyans. With ten times the population the United States consumes 320 times more resources than Kenya does” says Jared Diamond in his essay “What’s your consumption factor” .

    The fact on the ground is not “if the developing world were to catch up…” but rather the developing world is catching up.

    The race for increasing GDP’s and per capita incomes is now in its very advanced stage. The increase in GDP that defines the productivity of the nation is inversely related to the productive capacity of individuals. As the GDP increases the mass of unemployment people also increases which is a measure of the decrease in the productive capacity of an individual.

    Jared Diamnod’s question “what is your consumption factor?’ has a deeper dimension in production. The consumption factor is a product of a production paradigm which perpetuates consumerism in order to perpetuate itself. The large majority of individuals and families enjoy the benefits of increased productivity of technology that is they enjoy goods for the production of which have they have contributed no effort. Societies in the past were called affluent when a few enjoyed the goods produced by a large majority, today an increasing goods are produced my machines. These goods get to a large number of consumers who have no contribution to the production process. Thus the economy has ever expanding service sector. The more appropriate question therefor is what is your production factor?

    The core of the consumption factor is not just that people consume, more important is that they have become consumers because their productive capacities are progressively decommissioned. People work in the service sector ever more. There are several people today in different parts of the world who know that the milk comes from machines! When some of them see a cow being milked it is an experience-they have never before seen anything like this. We only receive what we consume; we know not how it and where it is produced, we progress only to be distanced from productive activities.

    This is the core of mechanisation and mass production.

    The neo-liberal economy carries this to an unprecedented scale, it aim is to an absolute decommissioning of human productive capacity replaced by technological productive capacity-the most advanced form of which is artificial intelligence robotics.