ILLUSTRATION BY GÉRARD DUBOIS
ILLUSTRATION BY GÉRARD DUBOIS

High consumption by some nations puts all of us at risk

Life on Earth is threatened by climate change, nuclear attack, dwindling resources—and the chasm between rich and poor.

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The world’s richest countries, such as Luxembourg and the United States, have average incomes per person about 100 times higher than in the poorest countries, such as Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That’s a tragedy for poor countries. Is it also a looming tragedy for rich ones?

Until recently all those poor people elsewhere were no threat to rich countries. “They” out there didn’t know much about our lifestyle—and even if they did and became angry, they couldn’t do anything about it.

But today, poor remote countries are able to create problems for rich ones, and the reasons can be summed up in a word: globalization. As a result of the increased connections among all parts of the world, people in developing countries know more about differences in living standards, and many of them can now travel to rich countries.

Globalization has made it untenable for such dramatic inequalities between high and low living standards to persist. I see evidence of that everywhere, but three examples stand out.

G R O S S N A T I O N A L I N C O M E P E R C A P I T A *

INCOME IMBALANCE

Today over a third of the world’s income is generated by about a tenth of the world’s population in wealthy countries. As incomes rise in poorer nations, consumption will rise also, thus depleting more natural resources to achieve a more affluent lifestyle.

Asia

South America

Africa

Oceania

All Countries

North America

Europe

Circles sized to population.

Hover over each circle for more information.

War and social ills keep Liberia poor despite abundant natural resources.

Nations to the right of this line account for 38% of the world’s income but only 12% of the world’s population.

Romania

20 million

$20,049

Equatorial Guinea

1 million

$23,324

Croatia

4 million

$20,848

Chile

18 million

$21,854

Kazakhstan

18 million

$23,164

Latvia

2 million

$22,889

Turkey

78 million

$23,125

Russia

144 million

$23,909

Hungary

10 million

$23,740

Greece

11 million

$24,251

Poland

38 million

$24,418

Malaysia

31 million

$24,324

Portugal

10 million

$25,860

Lithuania

3 million

$25,922

The Bahamas

386,838

$27,602

Estonia

1 million

$26,985

Slovakia

4 million

$27,851

Czechia

11 million

$28,567

Slovenia

2 million

$28,371

Cyprus

1 million

$30,744

Israel

8 million

$31,734

Spain

46 million

$32,217

New Zealand

5 million

$33,643

Malta

445,053

$32,755

South Korea

51 million

$34,276

Italy

61 million

$34,115

United Kingdom

65 million

$38,146

France

67 million

$38,367

Oman

4 million

$38,980

Japan

127 million

$39,322

Finland

5 million

$39,248

Belgium

11 million

$41,727

Bahrain

1 million

$42,178

Iceland

330,815

$42,425

Canada

36 million

$42,512

Luxembourg

569,604

$44,155

Australia

23 million

$43,138

Austria

8 million

$43,984

Germany

82 million

$44,766

Netherlands

17 million

$46,239

Sweden

10 million

$46,380

Denmark

6 million

$47,000

Ireland

4 million

$48,551

Saudi Arabia

32 million

$51,885

United States

321 million

$53,741

Hong Kong, China

7 million

$54,608

Switzerland

8 million

$58,280

United Arab Emirates

9 million

$66,923

Norway

5 million

$67,028

Kuwait

4 million

$73,657

Singapore

5 million

$78,742

Brunei

417,542

$78,611

Marshall Islands

52,994

$4,983

Bangladesh

161 million

$3,334

Cambodia

15 million

$3,086

Mauritania

4 million

$3,505

Kenya

47 million

$2,806

Malawi

17 million

$1,052

Côte d’Ivoire

23 million

$3,142

Niger

20 million

$889

Afghanistan

34 million

$1,824

Uganda

40 million

$1,635

Zimbabwe

16 million

$1,678

Ethiopia

100 million

$1,527

Central African Republic

4 million

$624

Burundi

10 million

$748

Togo

7 million

$1,374

Burkina Faso

18 million

$1,527

Sierra Leone

7 million

$1,297

Madagascar

24 million

$1,323

Haiti

11 million

$1,658

Guinea-Bissau

2 million

$1,485

The Gambia

2 million

$1,518

Mozambique

28 million

$1,093

Tanzania

54 million

$2,449

Nepal

29 million

$2,353

Cameroon

23 million

$3,243

Guinea

12 million

$1,664

Democratic Republic of the Congo

76 million

$750

Yemen

27 million

$2,229

Chad

14 million

$2,014

Lesotho

2 million

$3,039

Mali

17 million

$1,865

Sudan

39 million

$3,938

Rwanda

12 million

$1,688

Liberia

4 million

$694

Senegal

15 million

$2,230

Benin

11 million

$1,980

Ghana

28 million

$3,861

Honduras

9 million

$4,023

Kyrgyzstan

6 million

$3,086

Republic of the Congo

5 million

$7,418

Pakistan

189 million

$4,978

Nicaragua

6 million

$5,010

Moldova

4 million

$5,084

Cabo Verde

532,913

$5,692

Uzbekistan

31 million

$5,811

Nigeria

181 million

$5,527

Vietnam

94 million

$5,263

India

1.3 billion

$5,691

Laos

7 million

$5,523

Angola

28 million

$6,251

Bolivia

10 million

$6,345

Guatemala

16 million

$7,108

Morocco

35 million

$7,154

El Salvador

6 million

$7,563

Timor-Leste

1 million

$8,003

Ukraine

45 million

$7,375

Bosnia & Herzegovina

4 million

$11,004

Bhutan

787,386

$7,066

Paraguay

7 million

$8,192

Jamaica

3 million

$7,841

Belize

359,288

$7,666

Eswatini

1 million

$7,836

Philippines

102 million

$8,323

Armenia

3 million

$8,517

Georgia

4 million

$8,766

Jordan

9 million

$8,392

Indonesia

258 million

$10,037

Mongolia

3 million

$10,511

Dominican Republic

10 million

$12,655

Kosovo

2 million

$9,307

Egypt

94 million

$9,923

Sri Lanka

21 million

$10,791

Namibia

2 million

$9,929

Albania

3 million

$11,083

Ecuador

16 million

$10,567

South Africa

55 million

$12,073

Macedonia

2 million

$12,336

Peru

31 million

$11,420

Colombia

48 million

$12,772

Serbia

7 million

$12,601

Algeria

40 million

$13,338

Lebanon

6 million

$13,174

China

1.4 billion

$13,519

Costa Rica

5 million

$14,086

Palau

21,288

$13,400

Montenegro

622,159

$15,702

Botswana

2 million

$15,109

Thailand

69 million

$14,455

Iran

79 million

$16,537

Belarus

9 million

$16,228

Mexico

126 million

$16,569

Bulgaria

7 million

$16,663

Gabon

2 million

$16,482

Panama

4 million

$18,167

Argentina

43 million

$18,437

Mauritius

1 million

$18,733

Uruguay

3 million

$19,278

Qatar

2.5 million

$117,896

Per capita oil-consumption rates in the U.S. are about double those in western Europe.

Prosperous Qatar’s natural gas reserves represent almost one-sixth of the world’s total.

60K

10K

20K

0

30K

40K

50K

70K

90K

110K

120K

80K

100K

GROSS NATIONAL INCOME PER CAPITA*

Taylor Maggiacomo, NGM staff. Source: world bank; world factbook

*2015, adjusted for purchasing power parity (constant 2011 international $)

INCOME IMBALANCE

Today over a third of the world’s income is generated by about a tenth of the world’s population in wealthy countries. As incomes rise in poorer nations, consumption will rise also, thus depleting more natural resources to achieve a more affluent lifestyle.

REGION

N. America

S. America

Europe

Africa

Asia

Oceania

Circles sized to population

Gross National Income per capita*

(There is no x-axis.)

120K

Qatar, 2.5 million people

110K

100K

90K

Singapore

80K

Brunei

70K

60K

United States, 321 million

50K

Australia

40K

U.K.

Nations above this line account for 38% of the world’s income but only 12% of the world’s population.

30K

Russia

20K

India

Colombia

10K

China

1.4 billion

Liberia

0

D.R. Congo

Burundi

*2015, adjusted for purchasing power parity (constant 2011 international $)

Taylor Maggiacomo, NGM staff. Source: world bank

INCOME IMBALANCE

Today over a third of the world’s income is generated by about a tenth of the world’s population in wealthy countries. As incomes rise in poorer nations, consumption will rise also, thus depleting more natural resources to achieve a more affluent lifestyle.

N. America

S. America

Europe

Africa

Asia

Oceania

REGION

Circles sized to population.

Nations to the right of this line account for 38% of the world’s income but only 12% of the world’s population.

Liberia

Colombia

United States

321 million

Qatar

2.5 million

Russia

U.K.

Brunei

India

Australia

Singapore

China

1.4 bil.

60K

20K

0

10K

30K

40K

50K

70K

80K

90K

100K

110K

120K

Gross National Income per capita*

*2015, adjusted for purchasing power parity (constant 2011 international $)

Taylor Maggiacomo, NGM staff. Source: world bank

The first is health. The spread of disease is an unintended result of globalization. Feared diseases now get carried to rich countries by travelers from poor countries where the diseases are endemic and public health measures are weak. The diseases include old ones like cholera and flu, plus new ones like AIDS, Ebola, and Marburg. For instance, in 1992, when an Argentine airliner picked up cholera-infected food in Peru and flew nonstop to Los Angeles, some passengers then flew on to Seattle, Alaska, and Tokyo, resulting in a trail of cholera cases from California to Japan.

Second: terrorism. Global inequality itself isn’t the direct cause of terrorist acts. Religious fundamentalism and individual psychopathology play essential roles. Every country has its crazy, angry individuals driven to kill; poor countries have no monopoly on them. But in poor countries today, people are barraged with media visions of lifestyles that are available elsewhere in the world and unavailable to them. In anger and desperation, some become terrorists themselves; others tolerate or support terrorists.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and New York City’s World Trade Center towers, it’s been clear that the oceans that formerly protected the United States no longer do. Americans now live under constant threat of global terrorism. I predict that there will be more terrorist attacks against the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia—as long as big differences in living standards persist.

The third result when inequality and globalization collide is that people with spartan lifestyles want affluent ones. In most developing countries, increasing living standards is a top policy goal. But millions of people in those countries won’t wait to see whether their government can deliver higher living standards within their lifetime.

Instead they seek more affluent lifestyles now by immigrating to developed countries, with or without visas: especially to western Europe, the United States, and Australia; and especially from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Whether immigrants are seeking economic opportunity, a haven from violence, or political asylum, it’s proving impossible to control recent waves of migration around the world.

But it won’t be possible for everyone to achieve the dream of the developed-world lifestyle. Just do the math.

An average consumption rate per person means the amount of oils and other resources that the average person consumes a year. In rich countries those rates are up to 30 times as high as they are in poor countries.

Multiply each country’s current population by its average per-person consumption rate for a resource—say, oil—and add up those amounts over the whole world. The resulting sum is the world’s current consumption rate of that resource.

Now repeat that calculation, but with all developing countries achieving consumption rates up to 30 times as high as their current ones.

The result: World consumption rates increase by about 10-fold. That’s equivalent to a world population of nearly 80 billion people with the current distribution of consumption rates. Some optimists claim that Earth can support 9.5 billion people. But no optimist is crazy enough to claim that the world can support the equivalent of 80 billion people.

We promise developing countries that if they just adopt good policies such as honest government, they too can enjoy affluence—but that promise is a cruel hoax. The world doesn’t contain enough resources. We’re already having difficulty supporting a developed-world lifestyle now, when only about one billion people of the world’s 7.5 billion enjoy it.

Americans often refer to growing consumption in China and other developing countries as “a problem” and wish that the “problem” didn’t exist. Of course it will persist: People of other countries want to enjoy the consumption rates that Americans enjoy. They wouldn’t listen if told not to do what Americans are already doing. The only sustainable outcome for our globalized world is one in which consumption rates are more nearly equal around the planet. But we can’t sustainably support today’s developed world at its current level, let alone raise the developing world to that level.

Does that guarantee that we will end up in disaster? No! We could have a stable outcome in which all countries converged on consumption rates below what developed nations enjoy now. Americans may object: We won’t sacrifice our living standards for the benefit of those other people out there! As former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney once said, “The American way of life is nonnegotiable.” But cruel realities of world resource levels guarantee that the American way of life will change, like it or not. Those realities can’t be negotiated.

As alarming as that may sound, I believe it wouldn’t be a significant sacrifice. Why? Because consumption rates and well-being, although related, aren’t tightly coupled. Much U.S. consumption is wasteful and doesn’t contribute to quality of life. For example, per capita oil-consumption rates in western Europe are about half those in the United States—and yet the average western European’s well-being is higher than that of the average American by any meaningful criterion, such as financial security after retirement, health, infant mortality, life expectancy, and vacation time. When you finish reading this page, go out into any U.S. street, look at the cars driving by, estimate their gas mileages, and ask yourself whether those wasteful mileages contribute positively to any meaningful measure of quality of life.

Pull Quote
The only sustainable outcome is one in which consumption rates are more nearly equal around our globalized world.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s certain that within our lifetimes, per capita consumption rates in the developed world will be lower than they are now. The only question is whether we’ll reach that outcome by methods of our choice or by unpleasant methods not of our choice. It’s also certain that within our lifetimes, per capita consumption rates in developing countries will no longer be one-thirtieth of developed countries’ rates but will be more nearly equal to them. Those trends are desirable goals, rather than horrible prospects to be resisted. We already know enough to make progress toward achieving them; what’s lacking is the necessary political will.

Should we be depressed by the consequences of inequality? Again, no! While problems are getting worse, potentials for solutions are getting better. Multinational or world agreements have already succeeded in solving some big problems. Hence I view our world as being engaged in a horse race between a horse of destruction and a horse of hope. The race isn’t a normal one, in which both horses run at a constant speed. Instead it’s an exponentially accelerating race in which each horse is running faster and faster. Within a few decades we shall know which of those two horses has won the race.

Jared Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and other widely read books.