Currently there are more than 6.5 billion people sharing this planet with a population growth-rate indicating we will add another 38% by 2050. But the disastrous implications for humanity are not tied as tightly to population as they are to consumption.A NY Times article this week spotlights the glaring imbalance in consumption between the developed and undeveloped world, with North Americans as worst-offenders in a planet with quickly diminishing resources.
There are approximately one billion people in the developed world, with the other 5.5 billion still living within far less modern and less environmentally taxing means. That is, those of us in the industrialized, advanced or "civilized" societies are using up the world's resources far quicker. From oil to water, to lumber to fish to rubber, metal, you name it - each of us living the modern lifestyle is buzzing through all of these resources at 32 times the rate of a person living in a undeveloped area.
Even if you don't care about the plight of the third world, these consumption rates are unsustainable. This means we're using more then is being replenished, which means that prices will soar (oil just hit the $100 per barrel mark for the first time in history today), jeopardizing peaceful coexistence of the human race.
As the world's largest nation with a population four times ours at 1.3 billion, the Chinese see the high-tech lifestyle and want it for themselves. Their demand for energy is expected to gain on ours, creating explosive increases in the price of energy such as gasoline or home heating oil. Right behind China is India, with a population of about 1 billion, also expecting a place at the table, so they too can feast on consumption pie.
As just one indicator, India's cell phone industry grew at staggering rates in 2007, expected to exceed US subscriptions early in 2008 to become #2 behind China. Malaysia, Kenya, Mexico and the rest of the developing world are rapidly discovering this same communication superhighway, expected to greatly increase access to information.
With China's per capita consumption rates about 11 times below ours, their rise to our rates of consumption would mean the world would double it's current consumption of oil and metal. If India followed as well, consumption rates would triple.
For example, recent efforts to unite the world's pollution standards failed when US leaders refused to cut Greenhouse gas emissions. At the G8 Summit earlier this year in Germany, 10,000 protesters overran barricades in outrage when Bush personally refused to cooperate with the new international standard.
China, originally poised to cooperate despite surging growth, backed out after Bush's filibuster. Australia, formerly the only other hold-out to the Kyoto Environmental Protocols among developed nations recently threw their Bush-friendly President out and immediately signed on to Kyoto, leaving the US alone as the biggest emitter unwilling to improve (although over 225 US cities including NY, LA and Chicago have voluntarily signed on anyway).
Whether Americans are ready to reduce consumption or not, whether we care about being perceived as the consumption "pigs" of the world or not, Americans will have to reduce consumption anyway. Simply put, present rates are unsustainable. China knows this, already producing greener cars then us while forging alliances that look towards reducing consumption.
Ironically, much American consumption is unnecessary - the product of corporate consumerism, sold to us through psychological manipulation or preoccupation with image. Entire office buildings burn their lights all night long because of the "architectural majesty" of the exterior aesthetic.
But SUV's are perhaps the most glaring example of waste. We have more efficient transportation, but most SUV buyers prioritize their image, their safety, their comfort, their cargo room. These calculations have proven fatal for the US auto industry. Making too many SUVs resulted in years of losses, and demolished the US export market while Asian carmakers' profits soared, racing years ahead in production of alternative fuel vehicles in demand worldwide.
Laughably, it's been part of a merry-go-round with auto and oil industry lobbyists buying favorable legislation, producing inefficient, uncompetitive vehicles and then using fantastical advertising to market these boats to consumers, playing on their lost inner child in search of toys for self-gratification (one such ad actually portrayed an SUV in a toy store to the amazed delight of the shopper).
A more mature, practical look at safety shows SUVs are not so safe - perhaps there is a perception of safety for the occupant - but SUVs are mowing down others, contributing to an overall rise in auto accidents. Traffic fatalities fell 64% between 1972 and 1992 when cars got smaller and safer, but rose almost 10% since then as SUVs accounted for about half the vehicles on the road.
SUVs are 17% more likely to cause death in a collision with a car, and 82% more likely to kill pedestrians then normal cars. SUVs also kill or seriously injure their own occupants more often then cars in single-vehicle incidents, attributable to their tendency to rollover more easily. Poor visibility in close quarters increases fender benders and high costs of SUV parts make insurance premiums soar.
More then 90% of driving is simple commuting, not antiquing, and a significant portion of this is single passenger driving. This shows how impractically we make decisions, mesmerized by slick TV ads that promise us rolling country roads, empty of any traffic (as well as perfect hair and seductively sexy passengers). Americans are bombarded from cradle to grave with ads appealing to childlike impulse. We are encouraged to throw logic to the wind and buy, buy, buy to raise our self-worth through brand name status, illusion or false promises.
Low-mileage vehicles also helped displace GM as the largest US employer, formerly offering solid benefits and job security - with Wal-Mart - a shameful box-store franchise offering minimum-wage and cheap, disposable Asian imports. Per capita oil consumption in developed Europe is about half of ours, but they nevertheless enjoy healthier, heartier lifestyles, with longer life expectancy, better general health, less infant mortality, more secure retirements and more vacation/family time.