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January 03, 2008

Waste Not, Collapse Not Environment  Future

Via EuroTrib (from whom I stole the wonderful tagline above), an excerpt from a Jared Diamond (author of Collapse) NYT op-ed. Diamond says people in North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia consume about 32 times more resources and produce 32 times as much waste as people in the developing world. This is, putting it mildly, a problem. Diamond:

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.

Diamond has a point: we produce enormous amounts of waste and useless crap that do nothing to improve our quality of life. Who needs it? We can do much more with less — and be much happier in the bargain — if we focus on the stuff that really makes our lives better. Instead of using ever more resources and producing ever more waste, we need to redefine economic growth as making ever more efficient and effective use of a sustainable level of resource consumption and waste production. No doubt.

Ah, but will we? Diamond thinks it's a matter of summoning the political will. If only. Unfortunately, it's a whole lot bigger than politics. A lot of people make a lot of money on waste and useless crap. They're not voluntarily going to stop. Everybody pursues his or her own individual short-term interest and, in the aggregate, the result is collective suicide. Hard to see what's going to turn that around. We're like bacteria in a petri dish who grow like mad until they run out of nutrients, then die off. We like to think we're smarter than that, but we sure haven't proved it yet.

The 21st century question: are people smarter than bacteria?

Posted by Jonathan at January 3, 2008 05:11 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


As long as we gauge the health of our economy by it's growth, we need waste, war and sickness. They are the areas of growth, and sources of huge profit.

We need to redefine what a healthy economy is. In the past, people valued efficiency and sustainability, they can do it again.

Maybe as we put things back together after the next crash.

Posted by: Kent at January 4, 2008 07:03 AM

An interesting corollary is if we, voluntarily or not, decrease our wasteful ways then the economies of places such as China, who produce so much of these needless cheap things/conveniences, would decrease. This would have a double positive effect on the resources as they would no longer need more and we would waste less. Of course that's too much logic for the american who wants to drive-thru and throw everything away rather than suffer the indignity of having to cook, wash a dish or two and save anything for the rest of the world or future generations...

Posted by: jw at January 9, 2008 09:21 AM

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."
- Edward Abbey

Posted by: Michael at January 10, 2008 10:47 PM