How much is too much; how little is enough?
By John D. Turner
14 Jul 2008

My son showed me a video on YouTube (The Story of Stuff) the other day that he watched in his English class. Quite aside from the question of why my son was watching this video in a college English class (along with Al Gore’s propaganda piece “An Inconvenient Truth”), it was so chock full of inconsistencies, distortions, deliberately misleading statements, opinion presented as fact, and downright lies that it made my head want to explode. One of the “facts” thrown out there and lamented as a deplorable example of American civilization was that the United States, comprising a mere 3% of the world’s population, is consuming over 30% of the world’s resources.

Oh the horrors! How could we be so selfish, wasteful, and downright greedy? And as a matter of fact, this is exactly how the piece portrayed Americans to be. But of course, while we share part of the blame – the majority, as you may expect, is laid at the feet of the greedy military industrial complex, corporate robber barons, and evil Republicans.

Now I don’t know how accurate those numbers are. I have been hearing the same numbers for the past 30 years or so. And with other countries such as India and China, with their huge populations now industrializing on a massive scale, you would think that the percentages on resource usage would have changed somewhat.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether we are 3% of the world population or 4%, as I have heard from other sources. It also doesn’t matter whether we actually consume 30% of the resources, 25% of the resources, or even 40%. There is a question here that I would like to ask that I never hear asked when the statement above is slung around.

How much is “too much?”

The assumption always seems to be that Americans are consuming more than their “fair share” of resources. The question I never hear is “what exactly is our ‘fair share’.” Not only that, but what exactly is the definition of a “fair share?” And what exactly is the definition of “the world’s resources?” Which resources?

Those who throw out these words obviously do not like the 30% figure. Would they like 20% better? If we used 20% of the world’s resources, would they then be happy and quit haranguing us? Or would 20% then become the new 30%?

I suspect that the only thing that they would be satisfied with would be if we Americans, comprising 3% of the world’s population (accepting their number to be correct for sake of argument), were only using 3% of the world’s resources. That would (maybe) satisfy their sense of fairness and equality.

It all sounds great, high minded, caring and impassioned. I wonder though if they have ever sat down and seriously thought about what it would mean if all of a sudden we here in the United States did significantly ratchet down our resource consumption and how it would affect their life?

It should be obvious to even the most casual of observers that an individual living in a modern industrial society is going to inherently use more “resources” than someone in a third world country living at a subsistence level in a mud hut. They are also going to be using different resources. The person in the mud hut is going to use a lot more straw and mud than the person living in the industrial society, and the person in the industrial society is going to use a lot more oil than the person in the mud hut, for example. And neither is going to care much about what the other uses.

But, you say, the two are not equivalent. Straw and mud are renewable resources while oil is not. True, but irrelevant to my point, which is that each is using a disjoint set of resources with respect to the other; at least in this simplified example. The oil is useless to the person in the mud hut, and the mud and straw is equally worthless to the person living in the industrial society.

Of course, life is not quite that simple. There are sets of resources that both sets use that are, at least at first blush, not disjoint. Both sets eat food, for example, and both drink water. While this is true, resources consumed by one set still may not have any effect on the other. An example here is the “starving children in India” fallacy that my mom used to use on me to try and get me to eat my peas.

Whether or not I eat my peas really will have no effect on starving children in India, or any other place in the world. It isn’t as if I can send my peas to them after all! So if I eat my peas, that does not help them, and if I throw my peas away, it doesn’t hurt. Those peas were not going to end up on their plates in any event.

On the other hand, if the United States exports surplus food (which it does), and the third world country imports food from the United States (which they do), they will be affected if food exports from the United States fall or become more expensive and they cannot replace the shortage with foodstuffs from elsewhere. How might such an event come about? How about flooding, or drought, or possibly by using the farm land to plant corn for ethanol production instead of for food crops to export overseas?

If I cut back on electricity, it isn’t going to benefit someone who has no electricity one bit. If I drive my car less, it isn’t going to make life better for the person who walks to work every day. And you cannot make the argument that because I bought a new house, some person in the Congo now doesn’t have sufficient wood to build their own home.

But, you say, the world is not is a state of status quo. Countries that were once third world are industrializing. People may still live in houses of mud and straw, but now those houses may have electricity and running water. Many are moving into more substantial digs. People that used to drive wagons are now driving cars. This being the case, where are all these people going to get the resources that we are (and have been) “squandering” with reckless abandon?

Can’t we make do with less?

I can agree to a certain extent. We do waste quite a bit here in the United States. I would like it much better if we weren’t such a throwaway society. I much prefer fixing things when they break rather than buying a new one; it makes sense to my sense of esthetics even if it doesn’t make sense to my pocketbook. (Many things in our society are actually cheaper to replace than they are to fix.)

Again however, it comes down to what number is the “correct” number (everyone seems to have a different opinion), and how we measure things.

It also depends on what the meaning of “consume” is. There is the implication that when something is “consumed” it is gone forever. But many things are recyclable. And many things are in fact recycled.

Take a supertanker for example. Many thousands of tons of iron ore go into the construction of a single supertanker. If the supertanker were built in the United States, one would expect this to figure into the percentage of the world’s resources “consumed” by the United States. And yet, when the tanker is ultimately retired from service, the steel used in its construction does not go away (unless it sinks of course). The ship will be sold for scrap, be broken up, and the steel (and most everything else the ship is made of) will be recycled into other products, usually in a country other than the United States. Do we get a “credit” for the resource transfer? Of course not. Likewise, how do you figure the resource usage for the country where the ship is recycled?

But what about the oil, you ask. Oil is not recyclable. Once it is burned it is gone.

Well, some oil can be recycled; used motor oil for example. And some oil-based products like plastics are recyclable. However I get the drift. Oil which is refined and used for gasoline or in the production of energy is burned and gone. There is, at least as far as we can currently determine, an unknown but finite amount of the stuff so eventually it will for all practical purposes be consumed. Is it “fair” for us to do that and not leave any for anyone else?

Well, yes, it is. When we run out we will develop something else to use in its place. You will note that we no longer use whale blubber for lamps. This does not mean that there are folks who can’t make the leap from no light at night to electrical lighting because of a non-availability of whale blubber. And those who are just industrializing at the time that oil gets scarce will get to skip the oil step and move directly to whatever we are using then.

This happens all the time in other industries.

Take the telecommunications industry for example. Here in the United States, much of our telecommunications infrastructure still runs on copper wire. It is certainly less efficient that fiber optics; heavier, less bandwidth, etc. However, we were one of the first (and largest) countries to develop the system, and we have a huge investment in that copper network. It will cost a lot of money, time and effort to convert it all to fiber; some may never be converted.

Not so developing countries like China. They get to skip the copper wire and go directly to fiber optic cable and satellite telecommunications backbones instead, because that is the new technology. This gives them a bandwidth advantage over countries like the U.S., where we have an enormous existing investment in copper wire, and it’s cheaper to use the existing medium, even if it isn’t as good, than it is to switch everything out all at once. So China will probably have better broadband connections than we do for quite some time. The same is true of every developing nation on the face of the planet.

Energy will be no different. Once the oil is gone, we will simply use something else.

Next time someone tells you that we are using more than our fair share of resources, and trots out the 3%/30% argument or some variation therein, just nod your head sagely, and then ask them the following questions.

  1. How much, in their opinion do they think we should be using?
  2. Is there a level of use at which point they would stop complaining? If so, what is it?
  3. What effect do they think these changes would have on our country and our way of life?
  4. What are they personally doing to change their lifestyle to conform to what they feel is the correct amount of resources we should be consuming? Note: writing letters to their congresscritters or attending protest marches does not count. What changes have they made to their own lifestyle in order to cut back. Do they walk the walk, or just talk the talk?
  5. If they live in an area that is hot (like San Antonio), ask them if they are still using air conditioning. Most folks in the world in hot areas do not have air conditioning. You could suggest that eliminating their air conditioner might be a good place for them to start personally equalizing resource use.
  6. Ask them if they have a cell phone. If they say yes, just arch your eyebrow a bit.
  7. Ditto for a car, television set (bonus points if multiple sets or “big screen” TV), VCRs, DVD players, personal computers, video game consoles, etc. These are big contributors to those inflated resource numbers they are slinging around. You can’t be serious about using less if you are living the life of the rich (by third world standards).
  8. How many sets of clothes do they own? How many shoes?

Get the picture? It’s easy to complain; it’s harder to follow through. Most Americans, including those making all the noise, would be completely miserable if they had to actually make do with what people in third world countries make do with. And yet, that is where their rhetoric, if adopted, would lead. Industrialized nations use more resources than those that haven’t got there yet. It’s that simple.

The only way to reduce the percentage of world resources consumed by the United States versus the rest of the world, without sacrificing our standard of living, is for the rest of the world to come up to the same standard of living that the United States currently enjoys. Don’t expect the developing nations to stay the way they are forever; they are not poor by choice. They would like to have what you have as much as most people in the developed world and are working hard to get it. In many cases it is repressive regimes running their governments that are holding them back, not any sense of “being closer to Mother Gaia” or any such drivel.

It takes someone that is pretty high up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to have the spare time and energy to come up with something as selfless and self-destructive to society in general as some of the nutty ideas abounding among the less-is-more-crowd. Once they are actually down to the “at one with the Earth” level, picking the nits out of their hair, wondering where their next square meal is coming from, and hoping that the bully boys in the next hut over don’t come and physically take what little they have away from them, they may find that living at the physiological level isn’t all they thought it was going to be when they were self-actualized.

It wouldn’t be so bad if they just wanted to try it for themselves. It’s when they insist on dragging all the rest of us along for the ride that I draw the line.