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Friday, April 09, 2010

If All Chinese Had Wheels

by Dennis Pirages and Paul Ehrlich

New York Times (March 16 1972)

Note: I believe this article is as timely today as when it was published 38 years ago. Nothing but the numbers has changed. -- Bill Totten

Now that the People's Republic of China has been admitted to the United Nations and American leaders are jetting to Peking, it is inevitable that we will be hearing more proposals for trade and aid to help the Chinese bring themselves up to "our standard of living". The idea of helping less developed nations "industrialize" or "catch up" seems as American as baseball. Few people question the common wisdom behind these programs, the idea that the developing areas of the world can somehow catch up with contemporary consumptive standards of living in industrial societies.

The emergence of China as a needy superpower must surely generate a re-evaluation of these beliefs. First, it is doubtful that the Chinese will ever reach our current standard of living; indeed it is not certain that this is even possible. But, more important, it is questionable whether such an achievement would be desirable, from any point of view. If the level of industrialization in China could be increased to the point that each Chinese family possessed an automobile and other amenities of industrial society, the effect on China and the entire world would be catastrophic. This observation immediately raises the point, of course, that the US should be considered overdeveloped by virtue of having attained a level of per capita consumption far in excess of that to which the bulk of humanity can realistically aspire.

Some very basic figures shed light on the development dilemma. There are currently at least 750 million people in mainland China. By contrast, the population of the United States is slightly over 200 million. Since there are more than 3.5 Chinese for every American, it would require some 3.5 times the present United States resource consumption to sustain China at current American levels. Such affluence in China would necessitate a tremendous shift in world consumption of raw materials.

Energy consumption is the best summary measure of industrial sophistication, and per capita energy consumption is indicative of average individual environmental impact. The world currently consumes 6.5 billion metric tons of coal equivalent in energy each year. The United States uses 2.2 billion metric tons equivalent or one-third of total world consumption. The Chinese, on the other hand, consume less than 400 million metric tons equivalent. In per capita terms, each person in China is supported by the consumption of less than 500 kilograms of coal equivalent, while his American counterpart is supported by some 11,000. Roughly speaking, twenty-two times as much energy is used to sustain an American as to sustain one citizen of China.

An "Americanized" China would consume nearly eight billion metric tons of coal equivalent in energy each year, more than the present total world consumption. To the extent that energy consumption is a reasonable index of environmental impact, these numbers mean that raising Chinese energy consumption to the American level would amount to doubling the environmental impact of homo sapiens. Indeed, just the concentrated release of heat in the parts of China containing most of the population could lead to major, unpredictable climatic effects.

These figures, and similar ones that could be calculated for other less developed nations, indicate that it is imperative that the United States reassess policies predicated on the assumption that those nations can and should "catch up". The industrial nations really have two choices. They can continue their present course of devouring more and more of the earth's resources while destroying the environment. In the process there will be little substantial improvement in the lot of the poor nations, and in the not-too-distant future, a catastrophic, reduction in the capacity of the planet to support human life. In short, the greed of the few will lead to disaster for all.

The second choice would be for the industrial nations to deal with their own overpopulation and overconsumption. They could face up to the ecological unity of planet Earth and to the ways in which their destinies are intertwined with those of the poor nations. By establishing a high quality life instead of a high quantity life they could provide a new kind of model for the developing nations to emulate. Simultaneously they could begin a massive transfer of wealth to the poor nations so that poverty could be reduced substantially without destroying our planet in the process.


Dennis Pirages is visiting professor in the department of biological sciences at Stanford University; Paul Ehrlich is professor of biology at Stanford.

The New York Times
Published: March 16, 1972
Copyright (c) The New York Times

Bill Totten


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