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Our Consumption Factor Imperils Us All

Jared Diamond: The only way out is to make consumption rates and living standards more equal around the world.

If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold.

Diamond, a professor of geography, is the author of "Collapse" and Pulitzer Prize-winning "Guns, Germs and Steel." A longer version of this op-ed was published recently in The New York Times. The version re-posted here appeared in UCLA Today Online.

By Jared Diamond

TO MATHEHMATICIANS, 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: 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 in a world whose population may increase from more than 6.5 billion to around 9 billion within this half-century. 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 have a per capita consumption rate down toward 1.

People in the third world are aware of this difference in per capita consumption. 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.

Governments of developing countries have made an increase in living standards a primary goal of national policy. Among the developing countries seeking to increase per capita consumption rates at home, China stands out. Although its population is four times that of the United States, China's per capita consumption rates are still about 11 times below ours.

Let's suppose they rise to our level. World consumption rates would roughly double. 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).

We often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies — 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.

The only way out is to make consumption rates and living standards more equal around the world. We could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels.

Whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates because our present rates are unsustainable. 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. Australians recently elected a new government that immediately supported the Kyoto Protocol on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

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. Hence, I am cautiously optimistic. The world has serious consumption problems, but we can solve them if we choose to do so.