• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Population versus Consumption

Air Date: Week of

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Jared Diamond (Photo: University of California at Los Angeles)

We often blame rising population for the depletion of natural resources, but Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond tells host Bruce Gellerman that we should really be more concerned about increased rates of consumption, especially in affluent Western societies.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. So steep and deep was the recent slide on the world’s stock markets that politicians began uttering the dreaded ‘r’ word. To stave off a recession or even worse, the Feds lowered a key interest rate, calling on Americans to do what Americans do best: consume. Save the world’s economy by generating demand for stuff. But Jared Diamond, in a recent New York Times op-ed, warns that our current consumption isn’t saving the planet, it’s destroying it.

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at UCLA and best-selling author of Collapsed and Guns, Germs, and Steel. I called Professor Diamond at his home in Bel Air, California, and asked him why he’s focusing on consumption when others say the real problem is the world’s rapidly growing population.

DIAMOND: I’m looking at consumption as opposed to population because consumption of resources is the significant consideration in whether we’re going to have enough resources. Population alone is only part of the equation. What counts is the number of people times how much, on the average, each of those people consume. And that means that consumption rates rise—either if population rises which it’s doing slowly—or per person consumption rates rise, which they’re doing rapidly as a result of China and India catching up and as a result of people from all over the word doing their best to try to move to the U.S., and Europe, and Australia and become first world consumers.

GELLERMAN: In your article, basically you say that the world population has six point five billion people—that it will have nine billion people by mid-century. But if we all consumed like Americans that the rest of the world would add up to 72 billion people.

DIAMOND: Americans and other first worlders—that’s to say Europeans and Japanese and Australians—consume 32 times more resources. That’s to say we consume 32 times more gas, and 32 times more metals, but by the same token we put out 32 times more waste like plastics and greenhouse gases, than do citizens of third world countries, and that means that one American equals 32 Kenyans in his or her impact on the rest of the world.

GELLERMAN: So as long as Kenyans consume like Kenyans do now, we don’t have anything to worry about in terms of the resources that we need and utilize.

The average American consumes 32 times more resources than the average Kenyan. (Photo: CIA)

DIAMOND: That wrong statement would have been true if we already were consuming at a sustainable rate. But we’re, unfortunately, not consuming at a sustainable rate. So even if those Kenyans and South Americans and Southeast Asians—even if they didn’t exist—the first world itself is on a nonsustainable course. And then if you throw in the desire of people in China and India and everywhere else, to come up to first world living standards, that means we’ve got the equivalent, not of the six and a half billion people we can’t support now but the equivalent of 72 billion people who we won’t be able to support even faster.

GELLERMAN: So in terms of just growth, basically we have a small population growth here in the United States, a declining population growth in some places—in Europe—but in developing countries, they really do have explosive population growths.

DIAMOND: That is true and it’s not the biggest problem. It is true that countries like Kenya and Pakistan and some other developing countries have high population growth rates. And that is a real tragedy for Kenya and Pakistan, which are trying to improve their lot but are getting overwhelmed with more people to feed. But it’s not a tragedy for the rest of the world because those people in rapidly growing third world countries don’t consume very much. The real tragedy for the world is the growth rate of population and consumption in the first world. Now you’re correct that the homegrown population of Japan and Europe is actually shrinking, but that’s more than offset by all those immigrants pouring into Europe and the United States and increasingly even Japan as a result of third world people who just can’t wait for Kenya to achieve first world living standards, but want those living standards now. And as a result they move across the Mediterranean into Europe and they move across the border into the United States and they become first world consumers.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Jared Diamond (Photo: University of California at Los Angeles)

GELLERMAN: So, China, say—with its 1.3 billion people—no concern as long as they stay third world and don’t aspire to the first-world lifestyle.

DIAMOND: One of the biggest economic facts of all time is that China’s being very successful in catching up with the first world. China’s goal is to achieve first world living standards, which means to consume the way we are consuming now. Well, if China alone catches up to the first world and nothing in the world changes, that doubles consumption of the whole world. If India and China catch up, that triples consumption of the whole world regardless of what happens in Africa and South America.

GELLERMAN: The way we live right now—do we have a vested interest in the continuing poverty of places and so many people around the world?

DIAMOND: You might say that we have a short-term, short-sighted vested interest. It’s the vested interest of an ostrich, with its head buried firmly in the sand, as the lion creeps up behind it. The ostrich has a vested interest in not seeing the lion, because that means the ostrich will be happy for the next three seconds until the lion springs. Yes, the United States has a vested interest in ignoring the problems of the rest of the world. But we can’t ignore those problems. We’ve known ever since September 11, 2001, that the rest of the world now has ways of sharing their unhappiness with us if they do feel unhappy. So it’s just not possible for us to ignore the rest of the world.

GELLERMAN: So what country do you think we should emulate?

DIAMOND: First of all, we should emulate ourselves in certain respects. Let’s not just bash the United States. The United States in the last 30 years has done very well in dealing with problems of air quality. We now have federal standards and state and city standards for air quality and the result is that although there are lots more people and far more cars in Los Angeles than there were when I moved here in 1966, air quality is better. Other countries that we can emulate are European countries in their energy consumption. Or even the Asian—the Himalayan country of Bhutan—that small, rather poor, Asian country whose king has proclaimed that their goal is not to maximize the gross national product. Bhutan’s goal instead is to maximize gross national happiness. And that’s really what it’s about for us, too.

GELLERMAN: So, if we consumed like the Europeans, we wouldn’t necessarily have a decrease in our standard of living, even though our consumption would go down.

DIAMOND: If you look at Europe, we would have an increase in our standard of living if we decreased our consumption rates. Just think of Europe’s standard of living. Just think of what really counts in standard of living. Standard of living is not a matter of jumping into your Humvee and roaring off with your one person in your Humvee down the freeway. Standard of living is access to medical care, quality of public schools, support for the arts, whether you’ve got a pension in your old age, by any of those measures, the standard of living in Europe is a little higher than that in the United States, even though Europe’s consumption rates are lower. What this means is that it’s perfectly possible to cut all consumption even while raising our standard of living. The reason is simply that a lot of our consumption is just wasteful and doesn’t contribute to our standard of living. Owning a Hummer or an SUV does not increase your lifespan or increase your access to medical care.

GELLERMAN: So professor, how would you get Americans to consume less?

DIAMOND: My contribution to getting Americans to consume less is to do interviews with you and to write books and to write Op-Ed pieces. But Americans themselves are going to get themselves to consume less by confronting the reality of how the world is going and then acting in the best interest of themselves and their children. Dick Cheney, our vice president, attributed to him at least is a frequently quoted statement—and let’s see how it goes, it’s roughly like, ‘the American way of life is not open to negotiation.’ Yes, we are not going to negotiate the American way of life with Iran. But we are going to negotiate the American way of life with ourselves. We are the ones who are going to have to make these decisions.

GELLERMAN: Do you think it would take a dramatic makeover of the American economy in order to sustain a first world lifestyle but make it sustainable?

DIAMOND: It would take a slow continuation of the changes that we’ve already seen. For example, gas consumption. The price of gas here in L.A. is now up to three dollars and 80 cents and recently it may have topped four dollars, and it will undoubtedly go over four dollars soon. And let’s see what happens if the price of gas goes up to five or six dollars. In Europe the price of gas is the equivalent of eight or nine dollars. That’s part of the reason why Europeans tend to have gas efficient cars. So, four-dollar gasoline has already pushed lots of people into Priuses. I’m looking forward to six dollar and seven dollar gasoline.

GELLERMAN: I’ve got to tell you. I got a Prius.

DIAMOND: I am the proud owner of a Volvo. And my wife also has a Volvo. When and if our Volvos ever fail, we will either buy a Volvo hybrid—if by then Volvo has hybrids—or I will emulate you and buy a Prius.

GELLERMAN: But right now, you’ve got two Volvos. You’re part of the pollution, not part of the solution.

DIAMOND: I am part of the pollution. On the other hand, my defense is that I use my Volvos 3,000 miles a year to run around and do virtuous things.

GELLERMAN: Professor thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.

DIAMOND: You are welcome.

[MUSIC: Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny “Tears of Rain” from “beyond the Missouri Sky” (Polydor/PolyGram S.A. France 1997)]

GELLERMAN: Jared Diamond is a professor at UCLA and author of Collapsed, and Germs, Guns, and Steel.



UCLA Department of Geography: Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond's New York Times Op-Ed


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth