What Happens If Conspicuous Consumption Becomes Global?

Ed Raymond

The latest National Geographic has an editorial “The Global Peril of Inequality” by UCLA Professor Jared Diamond which the entire world should read. The author of many books on science, he is ranked ninth in a poll naming the world’s top 100 public intellectuals. He has won too many scientific awards to mention, but it’s very important to recognize he is considered an expert in a variety of scientific fields: particularly anthropology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and geography. He lists three areas why human life on earth is at terrible risk because of climate change (formerly known as global warming!): health, terrorism, and conspicuous consumption. On December 3 world-renown British naturalist David Attenborough, the voice behind most of the National Geographic TV specials on planet earth, told the delegates-politicians from almost 200 nations to the 24th annual United Nations climate change summit in Katowice, Poland about the fate of the world: “The world’s people have spoken. Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now. Leaders of the world, you must lead. The continuation of civilizations and the natural world upon which we depend is in your hands.”

In his editorial Diamond states a premise the developed world does not want to hear: “The only sustainable outcome for our globalized world is one in which consumption rates are more nearly equal around the planet.”  He is stating a fact: the peasant in Cambodia, the hedge manger in New York, the farmer in Brazil, the Louisiana shrimp fisherman, the caribou rancher in Finland, and the miner in the Congo will not be satisfied with their lives until they share in the earth’s resources.

Why Are The Caravans At Our Border? They’re Looking For Their Share

We have millions of people from underdeveloped countries on or near our borders who want to live like people in developed countries. Diamond asks a very important question: In the future will we have a stable outcomes  around the globe where consumption rates  are more nearly equal, or will developed countries refuse to sacrifice our present living standards for the benefit of other people? Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, certainly not known for his altruism, expressed the views of the Republican Party, now the Trump Party, in this pithy-or pissy-statement: “The American way of life is nonnegotiable.” You better not bet your sweet bippy on that, Dick. 

Diamond answers his question this way: “Cruel realities of world resource levels guarantee  what the American way of life will change, like it or not. Those realities can’t be negotiated. Diamond points out that much of American consumption is extremely wasteful and “doesn’t contribute to quality of life.” As an example, he compares our per-capita oil consumption rates with Europe and points out that, although Europe uses about half the rate of oil we do, the citizens of  Europe have a higher rate of well-being, such as financial security, health, infant mortality, life expectancy, and vacation time, than American citizens do. 

How Many People Can The Earth Support?

Scientists have determined that citizens in rich countries consume oil and other resources at a rate 30 times that of citizens in poor countries. When we multiply the population of poor countries in the whole world by 30, we can come up with the amount of resources that would be expended if everybody on earth lived in rich countries. We would then be using all resources at a rate of ten times what we are using today. This would be equal to having 80 billion people on earth. The current world population is about 7.6 billion. 

Some optimists today claim the earth’s resources can support 9.5 billion people. Supporting 80 billion is beyond question. Something would have to give. What are all the rich countries going to do to with all those poor caravans around the earth trying to cross their borders? The rich countries of Europe are facing more caravans then we are at Tijuana. Will we have a world uncivil war between the rich and poor? Perhaps the only solution is finding some kind of equality of life based on the world’s resources. Somebody is going to have to sacrifice. The citizens of rich countries have affluenzia while poor citizens suffer and die from influenza.

Two Other Perils Of Modern Life According To Diamond

Diamond says over-consumption is our major peril, but health and terrorism are not far behind. He writes that globalization has the unintended result of spreading poor country diseases quickly to rich ones. He cites the case of an Argentine passenger jet that picked up cholera-infected food in Peru before flying to Los Angeles. From LA, infected passengers flew on to Seattle, Alaska, and Tokyo, thus spreading cholera cases from California to Japan. Poor countries often have many cases of flu, AIDS, Ebola, and Marburg Fever. Some of these diseases are endemic and very difficult to control, even in rich countries.  In the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 500 million people, or a third of the world’s population, suffered from the flu, and perhaps as many as 50 million died. My mother lost four siblings in 1918 when 675,000 Americans died of the flu. 

Another peril to the citizens of earth is terrorism, often caused by religious fundamentalism, a disease found in every country on the planet. Every country has its religious psychopaths and sociopaths who have hypnotizing and diabolical  leadership qualities. Terrorism is easy to create in poor countries when the lifestyles of the “rich and famous” run daily on TV and the Internet, thus adding to the anger and desperation of the poor. Diamond predicts that the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia will have more terrorist attacks because oceans no longer protect any country. Although most developing countries have increasing living standards as a policy goal, Diamond writes that poor people won’t wait because they want to experience higher living standards in their lifetime. Who can argue with that? What is the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons? Look at what is happening between India and Pakistan, China and North Korea, and Russia and the United States. We already have had four serious false alarms between Moscow and Washington on nuclear missile launches. One false-alarm Russian missile launch of dozens of nuclear missiles at the U.S. was caused by the failure of a 46-cent computer chip. What happens to the planet if a high-flying flock of geese appear as missiles on computer screens? We have to avoid the “READY-FIRE-AIM” scenario, particularly when North Korea, the United States, Russia, and Pakistan are led by psychopaths who condone political murder.

The Peril Of Economic Inequality Will Also Hit The Rich

People in the richest nations such as Luxembourg, England, and the United States have average incomes 100 times what people in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo earn. Diamond writes: “Poor remote countries are able to create problems for rich ones because of globalization. As a result of increased connections among all parts of the world, people in developing countries know more about differences in living standards, and many of them can now travel to rich countries. Globalization has made it untenable for such dramatic inequalities between high and low living standards to persist.” It’s a case of billions of the poor saying “HAVE CARAVANS—WILL TRAVEL” to cross borders of developed countries.

The evidence is clear. American capitalism is not working because of greed.  The median weekly earnings for the bottom 90 Percent have gone up only 0.1 percent since 1979. The typical family today has a lower net worth than the typical family did 20 years ago. Even our life expectancy has fallen in the last decade.

In 1944 William Benton of the Benton & Bowles ad agency, while lobbying for major corporate interests, wrote: “Today victory is our purpose. Tomorrow our goal will be jobs, peacetime production, high living standards and opportunity. That goal depends on how American businesses accept necessary and appropriate government regulation as well as labor unions. It depends on companies not earning their profits at the expense of the welfare of the community. It depends on rising wages.”  Between 1945 and 1975 American businesses generally followed  Benton’s advice and almost everybody prospered.

Why American Capitalism Is Not Working For The Country Today

David Leonhardt of the New York Times has some excellent answers why our present unregulated capitalism is a disaster for the bottom 90 Percent. He claims capitalism started to go awry in the 1970’s when CEOs became more aggressive and concluded their only task was to increase shareholder values, workers and country be damned. CEOs fought for deregulation, reduced taxes, union-free workplaces, right to work (for less) laws in many states, and much higher pay for executives and themselves based on stock values and manipulation.

During the three decades after World War II middle-class income  rose fast because of unions and income inequality actually dropped. That ended when President Ronald Reagan and his California Mafia followed Gordon Gekko’s  famous line: “Greed is Good.” While the top Ten Percent prospers mightily the stagnation of living standards in the United States for the bottom 90 Percent is the major problem of our time. Over 44 million American students owe $1.5 trillion in student loans, more than either credit card or auto loan debt. College graduates with huge loans must live at home, cannot purchase autos or homes, and cannot afford to get married and start a family because well-paying jobs are not available.

We need to look for a political, economic, and government plan that fulfills what Benton wrote about. Germany has developed a plan that makes it very competitive in world trade. We need a “shared governance” model like Germany where 40 percent of its corporate boards are elected by employees, thus making sure that the interests of customers, employees and community are taken into account. It definitely works in Germany.  Higher education is paid for with taxes so life-long learning is available to workers if technology takes their jobs. Because Germany maintains high-quality domestic engineering it has an 18 percent share of the world market in the 100 most complex products produced. Germany more or less rules the world luxury car market with BMWs and Mercedes Benzes. German labor productivity is rated at least 8 percent better than other European and American countries because of engineering ingenuity.

The world is changing so fast it is absolutely breath-taking. As a child I lived in a farmhouse without electricity or bathroom. Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin was born two years after I was in 1934 in a mud hut near Moscow with no floor or windows. Only 27 years later he circled the earth in space orbit for 108 minutes as the first person in space.  It is difficult to forecast the future—but we should have the sense to at least examine facts and see if we have one.