At present, there are about 7.5 billion living human beings on earth. This number is expected to rise and reach almost 10 billion by mid century. What is often overlooked is that much of the world’s population resides in just 2 countries – China and India. More than 1 out of 3 people on earth live in one of these 2 countries.
Both of these countries have been developing rapidly, so much so that they are considered formidable competitors with America in global markets. But this fact conceals another important fact – even as they have become economic powerhouses, wealth inequality within these countries has grown, just as it has in America.
Currently, the income inequality in China, as measured by its Gini coefficient, is 42.2. This is comparable to that of the United States at 41.1. India’s is better at 35.1. But all 3 values have been increasing since 1980.
The fact is, even poor Americans tend to be wealthy by the standards of history. We have safety net programs, and while many would argue that they are far from perfect, I doubt anyone would argue that we don’t have the RESOURCES to provide every American with the basics of food, clothing, shelter, health care, and so on.
Now America’s population is a mere 320 million, only 4% of the world’s total. This means that in order to give everyone in the world our “basics,” we would have to have 23 times as much food, clothing, shelter, and so on as we “consume” in America. Doesn’t sound very feasible.
But the problem is that the American pattern of consumption is very atypical, even for the first world. The United Kingdom, for example, is very much a first world country. The median household income is more than $30,000/year. Yet the average U.K. resident consumes half as much energy as the average American. That doesn’t make them hungrier, shorten their life span, or make them colder in the winter. In fact, average life expectancy is actually higher than in America (which is true for many European countries), because of lower obesity rates and better health care systems.
Let’s examine something very basic – energy. About a quarter of the world’s energy consumption takes place in America. But this is largely because of transportation. All of the private cars on the road consume lots of energy. We could do just fine without millions of cars on the road, many of them carrying only one person at a given time. In fact, we would probably do better with public transportation systems, because they would force us to do more walking, which would be good for our health.
The fact is, economic growth does not necessarily translate into greater energy consumption. Since 1975, the U.S. GDP per capita has grown more than 80%. Yet the country’s per capita energy consumption has actually DECLINED:
It has been estimated that in order for all of the people on earth to have America’s consumption of resources, 4 earths would be required. But in a way, this misses the point. The issue is not whether we can bring everyone up to the American standard of CONSUMPTION. It is whether the world can have the first world STANDARD OF LIVING.
The median household income in Germany is about 2/3 of what it is in America. Yet Germany is ranked 24th in the world in life expectancy. America is ranked 31st. Germany is ranked 6th in the world on the Human Development Index. America is ranked 8th. The per capita energy consumption in America is 6900 kg of oil equivalent per year. Germany? 3900. Switzerland (a very wealthy country) – 3300. The U.K. – 3000. Spain – 2500.
There are 740 million people in Europe, about 10% of the world’s population. Generally, they enjoy a first world standard of living. So the issue is not whether we can generate 23 times the American level of consumption, but 10 times the European level. Still quite a challenge, but considerably more manageable.
Europe and China are moving away from fossil fuels, and the rest of the world will no doubt follow suit. It is becoming increasingly clear that renewables can provide enough power for basic human needs. Some countries (Iceland for example) already produce 100% of their electrical power with renewables.
Of course energy is only one issue, but this illustrates that the problem is perhaps not as insurmountable as it might seem. Population control is absolutely necessary, as are other revolutionary changes. But even if everyone can’t come up to the European standard of living, they might at least reach a third or half of that.
At present, the global GDP per capita is about $16,000. That’s half of the per capita GDP of countries like Spain and Israel. This illustrates that there is already, today, enough wealth generation to bring everyone up to a pretty decent standard of living. The problem is that the poorer a country is, the worse wealth inequality tends to be:
The green and yellow dots are European countries. The red dot is America. Third world countries tend to have high inequality. Nigeria, for example, is a very oil-rich country – in fact it is the world’s 15th largest oil producer, only slightly behind Norway, which has one of the world’s highest per capita GDP’s. Nigeria’s annual GDP is close to 500 billion dollars. Yet the median household income in Nigeria is less than $3000/year. A few people are collecting the lion’s share of the country’s wealth. The country doesn’t have a vibrant middle class.
It is worth noting that among countries, wealth inequality has actually been decreasing since the turn of the century:
If this trend continues, within 30 years global inequality will be back down to where it was in 1980. But the trend WITHIN countries is often in the opposite direction. Countries like India and China are building toward a first-world standard of living, but many of their people are getting left behind in the process.
The bottom line is that a decent, if not a first-world, standard of living for everyone seems quite feasible, provided we get a handle on the global population and institute policies that build a vibrant middle class throughout the world. Diseases that were long ago conquered in the first world, like malaria and cholera, still run rampant in parts of the third world. That’s absurd. We have the technology. We have the resources. We just need to let go of old ways of thinking.