Is Jared Diamond, the Malthusian alarmist about our future prospects, arithmetically challenged or economically challenged? That’s the first question I asked when I read his op ed in January 2′s New York Times.
“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,” says Diamond. Based on this, he calculates that, if everyone in the world consumed as much as we do, “It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people.”
Of course, it is perfectly obvious — to Diamond — that the world cannot support this. So he “is certain that within most of our lifetimes weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be consuming less than we do now.”
We may be 32 times wealthier than developing nations, but it is a sophomoric mistake to assume that this means we consume 32 times more raw materials. Most of our wealth comes from value added. Manipulate a few grains of sand the right way and you get computer processors. Manipulate a few iron filings the right way and you get hard drives for your ipods. Our computers and iPods may be more expensive (and contribute more to our wealth) than the tinworks made by people in developing nations, but they don’t consume more resources.
So how much more raw materials do we consume? For the “developed world,” Diamond includes North America, western Europe, Japan, and Australia. For the “developing world,” Diamond mentions only China and India. So let’s compare how much we Americans consume of various things compared with China and India. For good measure, let’s throw in Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey.
. Per-Capita Consumption as Multiple of U.S. . China India Indo. Brazil Turkey Average . Aluminum 15.8 47.3 38.2 7.6 11.5 29.0 . Cement 0.9 3.8 4.1 4.1 0.8 2.5 . Copper 6.7 28.1 37.5 5.0 4.3 17.2 . Electricity 8.4 26.8 26.8 6.7 7.1 16.8 . Oil 14.0 31.3 13.8 6.2 6.9 20.0 . Steel 3.6 10.1 14.7 3.9 1.1 6.9
As the table above shows, we do consume more than developing countries — but not 32 times more. Instead, for many vital resources, it is only 7 to 20 times as much. Aluminum is the only one the comes close to 32, but the latest data I could find for aluminum are for 1995; the multiple is probably much smaller today. And since much of the aluminum and steel we use is recycled, our per-capita consumption of iron and bauxite may be much lower still.
Our consumption multiples of other resources are even smaller. Because undeveloped and developing countries consume lots of wood for fuel, they may actually consume more total wood per capita than we do. Due to industrial forest production, we use less land for wood per capita and, for similar reasons, probably use less land for food production. Mechanization of our farms mean we consume relatively tiny amounts of land for pasture for horses and other beasts of burden.
Moreover, for many of these resources, including wood and steel, our per-capita consumption is declining, while it is increasing in developing nations. So even if consumption in developing nations was not growing, our multiples would be falling.
Can Diamond possibly be unaware that his numbers are wrong? Did he just use GDP or some other measure of wealth and assume that consumption of raw materials was perfectly proportional to that measure? Or is he deliberately exaggerating the problem so as to promote his alarmist prescription?
Diamond’s prescription is, of course, government planning and control, such as what would be required by the Kyoto protocol. A better prescription would be to let markets work: if we really run short of anything, the price will go up, and people will consume less. That way, we won’t have to worry about the arithmetic skills and hidden agendas of the government planners who Diamond wants to empower.