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.

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.

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.

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