Average per-capita consumption rates of resources are about 32 times higher in the First World than in the developing world

Monday, June 24th, 2019

Naturally Jared Diamond (Upheaval) is concerned about the environment — and about the rest of the world trying to live like us:

The most discussed primary effect of CO2 release is to act as a so-called greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. That’s because atmospheric CO2 is transparent to the sun’s shortwave radiation, allowing incoming sunlight to pass through the atmosphere and warm the Earth’s surface. The Earth re-radiates that energy back towards space, but at longer thermal infrared wavelengths to which CO2 is opaque. Hence the CO2 absorbs that re-radiated energy and re-emits it in all directions, including back down to the Earth’s surface.


But there are two other primary effects of CO2 release. One is that the CO2 that we produce also gets stored in the oceans as carbonic acid. But the ocean’s acidity is already higher than at any time in the last 15 million years. That dissolves the skeletons of coral, killing coral reefs, which are a major breeding nursery of the ocean’s fish, and which protect tropical and subtropical sea-coasts against storm waves and tsunamis. At present, the world’s coral reefs are contracting by 1% or 2% per year, so they will mostly be gone within this century, and that means big declines in tropical coastal safety and protein availability from seafood.


For instance, when non-poisonous chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFCs) replaced the poisonous gases previously used in refrigerators until the 1940’s, it seemed like a wonderful and safe engineering solution to the refrigerator gas problem, especially because laboratory testing had revealed no downside to CFCs. Unfortunately, lab tests couldn’t reveal how CFCs, once they got into the atmosphere, would begin to destroy the ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet radiation.


France has generated most of its national electricity requirements from nuclear reactors for many decades without an accident.


Europeans are discouraged from buying expensive big cars with high fuel consumption and low gas mileage, because the purchase tax on cars in some European countries is set at 100%, doubling the cost of the car.


Also, European government taxes on gasoline drive gas prices to more than $9 per gallon, another disincentive to buying a fuel-inefficient car.


These various resources differ in four respects important for understanding their potential for creating problems for us: their renewability, and the resulting management problems; their potential for limiting human societies; their international dimensions; and the international competition that they provoke, including wars.


There have already been some attempts to exploit all three: after World War One the German chemist Fritz Haber worked on a process to extract gold from ocean water; at least one attempt has been made to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to a water-poor Middle Eastern nation; and efforts are far advanced to mine some minerals from the ocean floor.


Fresh water is also mobile: many rivers flow between two or more countries, and many lakes are bordered by two or more countries, hence one country can draw down or pollute fresh water that another country wants to use.


Average per-capita consumption rates of resources like oil and metals, and average per-capita production rates of wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in the First World than in the developing world.


The First World consists of about 1 billion people who live mostly in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia, and who have relative average per-capita consumption rates of 32.


Many decades ago, American diplomats used to play a game of debating which of the world’s countries were most irrelevant to U.S. national interests. Popular answers were “Afghanistan” and “Somalia”: those two countries were so poor, and so remote, that it seemed that they could never do anything to create problems for us.


Among the ways in which globalization has made differences in living standards around the world untenable, three stand out. One is the spread of emerging diseases from poor remote countries to rich countries.


Many people in poor countries get frustrated and angry when they become aware of the comfortable lifestyles available elsewhere in the world. Some of them become terrorists, and many others who aren’t terrorists themselves tolerate or support terrorists.


Only in poor countries, where much of the population does feel desperate and angry, is there toleration or support for terrorists.


They have two ways of achieving it. First, governments of developing countries consider an increase in living standards, including consumption rates, as a prime goal of national policy. Second, tens of millions of people in the developing world are unwilling to wait to see whether their government can deliver high living standards within their lifetime. Instead, they seek the First World lifestyle now, by emigrating to the First World, with or without permission: especially by emigrating to Western Europe and the U.S., and also to Australia; and especially from Africa and parts of Asia, and also from Central and South America. It’s proving impossible to keep out the immigrants.


  1. Graham says:

    Umm, poor non-Islamic societies generate almost no anti-Western terrorism.

    Even the really poor in Islamic societies don’t generate much.

    Historically middle-income-range Islamic countries with ballooning populations of actual poor and overproducing of educated middle class young men. Egypt and Saudi alone are the big suppliers. Even Iraq was an artificially created market.

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    What bullshit! The ocean ph on average is 8.1– alkaline! Moving from 8.2 to 8.1 doesn’t make it acidic, <7.0. The term acidification is meaningless and useful only as propaganda. There's probably not enough carbon in the world to lower the ph below 7.

  3. Ezra says:

    “lab tests couldn’t reveal how CFCs, once they got into the atmosphere, would begin to destroy the ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet radiation.”

    I remember that prediction very well. By the year 2010 the ozone layer will be destroyed and we will all have to wear space suits to go out-of-doors. Remember that date well, 2010.

  4. Kirk says:

    Juxtapose the date that the patents on R-12 ran out with the “ban on CFCs”, look at the sources of the money for that sweet little scam, and then look at the actual chemical characteristics of the stuff they replaced it with.

    The CFC crisis had rather more to do with DuPont continuing to make money than anything else. The CFCs were not ideal things to be pumping into the atmosphere, but there are two things to look at: The toxicity and effect of their replacements, and how DuPont sold the plants making R-12 on to the Indians and Chinese. So far as I know, those plants are still churning out R-12; witness the latest “scandal” about how they are finding it in the Chinese industrial outgassing. Also, as a data point, when I was in Kuwait and procuring materials for 4 ID, one of the more surreal experiences was finding a Kuwaiti industrial supplier who had not just a few containers of it for sale, but several freakin’ acres of R-12, available and ready-to-go. Production dates all in the late 1990s and early 2000s, contemporaneous with my time in Kuwait.

    Gentlemen, I can’t prove it, but I’m about 90% certain that that whole deal was a scam, start to finish. No doubt, something similar will be done when the current set of refrigerant patents run out, and DuPont needs to find another cash cow. The environmentalists got used, IMHO. Which is what they’re there for.

  5. TRX says:

    “Many people in poor countries get frustrated and angry when they become aware of the comfortable lifestyles available elsewhere in the world.”

    And the USA managed it in only a few hundred years. Too bad the poor countries spent all their time killing each other or creating societies that didn’t value enterprise or progress.

    We not only did it ourselves, we actively try to show others how to do it, sending out advisors, missionaries, and money. But noooo, that would be like “work”; better to just demand entry and get it all for free!

  6. Kirk says:

    It’s basically cargo-cult thinking: “Those Americans are really successful and lead comfortable lives… If I can just get to America, I’ll be able to be successful and lead a comfortable life…”.

    The reality, which is that that success and comfortable lifestyle is derived from what the “Americans” are doing, escapes them. So, they come here, recreate their home cultural conditions, and are then surprised by their failure and discomfort.

    Flip side to that coin is the idiot Americans that think we have “magic dirt” that’s somehow going to automatically infect these people coming here with the attributes that make America American…

  7. Bruce says:

    “I’m about 90% certain the whole thing was a scam”

    Seems likely.

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