| Feb 23, 2006

Feature Article - February 23, 2006

Feature Article

February 23, 2006

Global Change, Part 1:China in your future

Commentary by Gray Merriam

Kurt Vonnegut, rebel U.S. author, recently gave our civilization only about five more years. Others have expressed similar pessimistic predictions. What is behind them?

Concern about the future of civilization was often expressed in the ’60s based on the rapid increase of the human population. In my lifetime the world population has doubled twice. In the ’70s it was made clear that the problem was not just population size. The problem was total resource demand. Resource demand was the number of humans multiplied by the rate at which that population was consuming the world’s resources.


In the oil crisis of the ’70s, it was clear that if there was a limited supply of some resource, such as oil, and the demand for that resource stayed high, the price of that resource could soar and completely distort the economic system of capitalist civilization. We had $20 per barrel oil for the first time and the economies of the northern and western hemispheres were all shook up. Until 1973, a barrel of oil was worth one bushel of wheat. Things have changed. In 2005 it took 13 bushels of wheat to buy one barrel of crude, and shortages of all kinds of resources are now becoming evident to economists, and even to politicians.

Paradoxically, resource shortages have been a topic for discussion mostly in the northern and western nations who are responsible for about 85% of the consumption of the world’s resources. The rest of the world, with only about 15% of that resource flow, simply was starving quietly or dying of diseases.

With the turn of the century, that distribution of world resource is changing. The Indian subcontinent and, more especially, China are changing all the elements of the problem. The numbers of humans, the rate each person will use up resources and the effects on the globalized economic system are all changing. For many decades the United States has consumed more resources in total than any other nation. In 2005, China surpassed the U.S. in consumption of all basic resources except oil. By 2031, China ’s population will reach 1.45 billion. If their economy continues to go grow at 8% per year, each of those persons will have the same spending capacity as individuals in the U.S.

North American economic relationships with the Pacific clearly will change. China cannot now produce enough food for 1.45 billion people and their commercial development and decreasing water availability are reducing their food production areas for the future. They will need to trade for grain. Those 1.45 billion people will need two-thirds of the global grain production and they will have the U.S. dollars to buy it; they will compete directly on the open market for U.S. wheat. They also will need double the world’s current production of paper. And their consumer economy will need 99 million barrels of oil per day, well above the current global production of 88 million barrels per day. With a current trade surplus with the U.S. of about U.S. $160 billion, China will be a consumer force to reckon with globally!

China will not have oil to trade with. Their continent has little petroleum. They will not have the food production capacity to feed their population. They will need to produce and manufacture commodities that have high economic value but very little food value to trade for high food value items and for oil. Based on their current development patterns, that prospect for China will mean continued destruction of agricultural areas, shortage of water for agriculture and increasing output of industrial wastes that damage both the environment and the health of humans. If the Chinese continue to follow their model of the ‘American Dream’ they will focus on consumerism as North Americans have and they will generate the same set of problems: damaged air, water and land environments, especially in cities, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Although significantly different in detail, a similar pattern of population growth, increased use of ever-decreasing resources, and declining environmental qualities will also be true in India . The Indian population will exceed that of China by 2031

As these two rapidly developing parts of our global civilization increase their dependence on consumerism and the already-developed northern and western nations fight to hang onto their disproportion of the world’s resource flow, the gap between the rich and the poor nations will increase steeply.

Perhaps Vonnegut is correct. If you want to tackle the details, see “Plan B 2.0”, 2006, by Lester Brown, from the Earthwatch Institute or go to www.earthpolicy.org or wait for more to follow from here.

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