What would happen if every country on earth suddenly achieved the American standard of living? Is such a goal possible — or even desirable?
AMERICA has more of just about everything that men and machines can make. From computers to can openers and from fertilizer to furniture, America leads the world in the production and consumption of goods that make for what is called by many "the American way of life." Straining to catch up to the American standard are the nations of Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, South Africa and a few other islands of affluence in a sea of scarcity and want. But is affluence only for a select 20 percent of the earth's inhabitants? What about the other 80 percent? Can this massive group hope to someday share a similar affluence? Is there any hope that the entire world can attain the level of American affluence? Will the Peruvians someday survey the Andes from their split-level ranch-style homes filled with all the goods and gadgets of our technological society? Will the Pygmies one day drive their Pontiacs (or at least their Volkswagens) to and from work? Does the earth have sufficient resources to make it possible? The U. S. has less than six percent of the world's people. But it spends about forty percent of the world's resources on itself.
This includes well over a third of the world's tin, over a fourth of its steel, phosphate, potash and nitrogenous fertilizer, about a fifth of its cotton, and about half of its newsprint and synthetic rubber. The U. S. yearly steel consumption amounts to 1400 lbs. per person, that of Western Europe 712 lbs., Japan 697, India 26, Africa 23. U.S. per-person steel consumption is 667 times that of Indonesia and 133 times that of Pakistan. When it comes to copper, the U.S. annual per capita consumption is over 20 lbs., Western Europe 14, Japan 10, and Africa and India five ounces. The story is similar for all other metals. The average American uses more electricity than 55 Asians or Africans, and he consumes about eight times as much oil per capita as some others in the free world — about 900 gallons per person annually. On a worldwide average, a single person in developed nations uses about as many resources as 25 persons in underdeveloped countries. And, if only 15 percent of the world's total population — about 500 million people — were living on the American standard, they would consume ALL current worldwide production of goods and materials. Meanwhile, the remaining masses — 3.1 billion people — would be left without anything! If everyone living today were to have a supply of materials equal to the U.S. per capita level, the overall world production would have to be multiplied 7.2 times. By the year 2000, using a conservative estimate, the world's population will stand at 5 billion. Then ten times today's total production would be needed for everyone to live at the current American level. This would require about 75 times as much iron and zinc as is now annually extracted, 100 times as much copper, 200 times as much lead, and 250 times as much tin.
Our Finite Earth
America today is so busy covering two acres per minute with houses, factories, stores and roads that little thought is given to the fact that sooner or later there will be a shortage of raw materials. In the hustle and bustle, America continues to devour resources at an alarming rate without ever stopping to consider where the material comes from. We in the "have" nations are all too prone to forget that we live on a finite earth whose resources are limited — far more limited than one might imagine. Less than one percent of the earth's mineral crust contains deposits of the approximately 100 minerals which are of economic importance. Further, less than ten percent of these deposits are of sufficient grade and accessibility to make mining them feasible. And, unlike plant and animal resources, minerals and fuels are not naturally renewable. Yet, today we are depleting these resources faster than ever.
Affluent Nations Mineral Poor
It is an ironic paradox that the world's affluent nations are resource-poor when compared to undeveloped countries. No industrialized nation, with the possible exception of the Soviet Union, is self-sufficient in mineral resources. And among those developed nations dependent on imports, the U.S. is among the most vulnerable. Though America was once mineral-rich, today it is mineral-poor. More than 60 of 72 strategic commodities must be imported in quantity — some 40 of these from politically unstable or unfriendly areas. Chrome, for example, is a steel alloying material essential for the jet engines, gas turbines, guns, and armor piercing projectiles of modern warfare. Yet since the sanctions against Rhodesia, the U.S. now depends on the Soviet Union for well over half of her annual supply. Nickel is another vital mineral we have never produced in any real quantity domestically. Biologist Preston Cloud states of the U. S. mineral position: "Among many other mineral commodities, it [the United States] imports most of its manganese, chrome, cobalt, tin and bauxite. It extensively supplements its lead, zinc and tungsten from foreign sources. Its dependence on foreign petroleum, iron ore [now nearly half of our annual production is imported] and copper grows annually." Yet little thought whatsoever is being given to slowing down or curtailing the demands for these products. Instead, we are driving per capita consumption levels ever higher in both developed and undeveloped countries alike. While world population increases at some two percent annually, consumption of goods is growing at more than four percent. For the immediate future this growth rate can be expected to continue — and even accelerate. But by the end of the century it will be a different story.
The Forecast for 2000 A.D.
Many experts see America in a desperate crisis by the year 2000, searching for diminishing supplies with which to keep production lines rolling. Other industrialized nations will face a similar problem. A leading Canadian geophysicist, F. S. Grant, feels that world consumption of copper, lead, nickel and zinc is rising so rapidly that known reserves are likely to be exhausted within 20 years. Dr. Charles F. Park, author of Affluence in Jeopardy, observes that the world is already beginning to run short of some important materials such as mercury, tin, silver and cobalt. He foresees the big drain coming, however, about the turn of the century, when population may have doubled and the undeveloped countries will have achieved a certain level of industrialization. Tantalum, tungsten, beryllium, bismuth, vanadium, cadmium, and other metals are likely to be in short supply or depleted 30 years from now. Some of these are required only in minute amounts, but they are indispensable to industrial processes.
In spite of our dwindling resources, the whole world is afflicted with what has been called the "Chamber of Commerce" syndrome. It is the philosophy that continuing growth is good. John Kenneth Galbraith has well said: "No other social goal is more strongly avowed ... no other test of social success has such nearly unanimous acceptance as the annual increase in gross national product. And this is true of all countries, developed or undeveloped, communist, socialist, or capitalist." When will we wake up to realize that the Gross National Product can't continue to rise indefinitely? Granted, an economy based on continued growth can work temporarily in an under populated nation with excess resources. But as Wayne H. Davis of the University of Kentucky explains, "It could continue to work only if the Earth and its resources were expanding at an annual rate of 4 to 5 percent. Yet neither the number of cars, the economy, the human population, nor anything else can expand indefinitely ... in a finite world. We must face this fact now. The crisis is here." But, are we facing this fact? It surely wouldn't seem so. We continue to build automobiles of needless bulk and with engines of 450 horsepower, although less than 10 percent of that horsepower is used most of the time. We continue to design aircraft to cut in half the travel time between distant points without questioning whether anyone really needs to arrive that much sooner. We continue to expend electrical energy to transmit television and radio programs devoid of information or value. We continue to make and buy ever more energy slaves until now the average American has some 500 of these mechanical gadgets within his grasp. These 100 billion machines consume air and food (fuel), dissipate body heat, and excrete wastes just as surely as if they were human slaves. They're convenient, but are they necessary? Faced with these facts, we need to ask ourselves some penetrating questions about the Western way of life. Is it, after all, the best way of life? Should we cling to this way despite the fact that our wealth is running out until we one day "achieve" universal abject poverty?
Which Way to Turn?
Or are the facts only warning signs that we need to somewhat alter our approach and simply develop new materials and new sources of fuel and energy? Is it time to completely reorient industry toward total dependence upon renewable or recycled resources, establish a system that might be shared with the "have not" countries to raise their standards of living? Can it be done? Or has our technological society leaped from the track of sanity — shunned a harmonious relationship with nature and actually based its present and future economy on the MISUSE of the very earth that sustains us? If this is true — and there is every indication that it is — can we be so careless and not expect to pay the price? Shouldn't we be willing now to cut back on our appetite for the "American way of life," rid ourselves of the desire for more conveniences, gadgets and commodities that deplete our resources and pollute our environment? Isn't it time we sorted out our real priorities while there is still time? We are, after all, on a collision course. Somewhere along the line the consumers, producers and the politicians will have to make a unanimous choice. The earth simply does not have enough resources for the whole world to achieve the present level of Western affluence. And even for the developed nations, affluence as we have it today — including the much-envied and emulated "American way of life" — is a temporary and passing phenomenon.