Posts Tagged ‘Consumption’

Consumption and the Limit to Resources

November 28, 2009

I will come back to what Michelle Obama has to do with this topic after I present the facts that are pertinent to the story. These facts are fairly well known but it was nice to find them described succinctly in Jared Diamond’s book (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) that I started to read again at the urging of Vinod.

Here is the essential statistic: on average, each citizen of the US, Western Europe, and Japan consumes about 32 times more resources and puts out 32 times more waste than do inhabitants of developing countries.

The leaders of all developing countries aspire to lift the living standard of their citizens to match those of the developed ones – the elites are already living at that level shaping the aspirations of the rest of the citizens. The East Asian countries have been growing rapidly over the last quarter century and the goal of the Indian government is to grow the economy at ten percent per year for the next twenty years.

Is this a feasible proposition? Diamond calculates that if every developing country citizen adopted the living standards of developed countries, the global impact in terms of resource use and waste generation would multiply by a factor of twelve. And he notes: “I have not met anyone who seriously argues that the world could support twelve times its current impact.”

People in the Third World aspire to First World living standards… Even in the most remote villages and refugee camps today, people know of the outside world. Third World citizens are encouraged in that aspiration by the First World and the United Nations development agencies, who hold out to them the prospect of achieving their dream if they will only adopt the right policies, like balancing their national budgets, investing in education and infrastructure, and so on.

But no one in First World governments is willing to acknowledge the dream’s impossibility: the unsustainability of a world in which the Third World’s large population were to reach and maintain current First World living standards…. Even if the human populations of the Third World did not exist, it would be impossible for the First World alone to maintain its present course, because it is not in a steady state but is depleting its own resources as well as those imported from the Third World… What will happen when it finally dawns on all those people in the Third World that current First World standards are unreachable for them, and that the First World refuses to abandon those standards for itself?

I thought of this as I heard the chatter surrounding the state dinner in Washington for Dr. Manmohan Singh. All the talk was about Michelle Obama’s ensemble that must have cost over $10,000 – it took over a dozen persons working more than twenty days under the supervision of a hotshot designer to the glitterati. In all likelihood, it would be worn just once. And then I imagined the prime minister’s wife taking out a sari she has probably worn before, and will wear again, tying up her hair as she does every day, and accompanying her husband to the White House. This is a huge contrast in living styles and standards – the opulence on one side not fazed by the deepest economic crisis for generations and over ten percent unemployment; the modesty on the other not dented by almost double digit growth for over a decade.

How will these trends play out in the future? My guess is that the First World is unlikely to abandon the lifestyle that it takes for granted. But would the billions in South and East Asia resist the temptation of emulating them? And, if not, would it be a fair outcome to the distribution of global resources.

Both presidents Obama and Hu Jintao are going to the Copenhagen climate talks with pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But this should not be mistaken for any intention to decrease the desired rates of economic growth. All it means is a commitment to be more efficient in the use of energy, i.e., to use less energy per unit of output – the output itself is not to be restrained. One can draw a parallel with the goal of increasing fuel efficiency of automobiles – by itself that is not enough to reduce the total amount of fuel used; the gains can be offset if the number of miles that automobiles are driven increases in proportion which has been the case to date.

Given this dilemma, do we have a choice not to question the notion of progress that we have taken for granted and that has become synonymous with the relentless growth of GDP? Instead of developed and developing societies, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss spoke of “hot” and “cold” societies. “The hot societies are the modern ones, driven by the demons of historical progress. The cold societies are the primitive ones, static, crystalline, harmonious. Utopia… would be a great lowering of the historical temperature [yielding] freedom in which man would finally be freed from the obligation to progress, and from the age-old curse which forced it to enslave men in order to make progress possible.”

Is there an alternative conceptualization of progress that could make everyone better off? Or, are we condemned to either accept an unfair distribution of global resources or to hurtle down the path of an inevitable confrontation?

The excerpt on Claude Levi-Strauss is from an essay by Susan Sontag, A Hero of Our Time, in the New York Review of Books, November 28, 1963.

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