The Viridian Design Movement

Subject: Viridian Note 00469: Those World-Killing Chinese

Key concepts:
Chinese consumption patterns, economic growth, Lester Brown, Worldwatch Institute
Attention Conservation Notice:
Understanding this Note requires some elementary math skills, in the sense that, for instance, one planet Earth isn't as big as four planet Earths.


Lester Brown worries a lot about famine. Especially Famines induced by water shortages and climate change. People have tended to mock Lester for fretting over this classic Horse of the Apocalypse.

EU Wheat Prices Rise as Heatwave Threatens Crops

Here's some cogent insights into what it takes to drill for American oil nowadays. This is craziness. For this kind of effort we could build windmills the size of a 900-foot Jesus.

Have you noticed America's "national heat wave" this week? It's actually a global heat wave, but Americans have become too nationalistic to notice.

Some people don't believe that big business is seriously worried about climate change.


Rupert Murdoch:

Goldman Sachs:

The entire G-8 Summit, except for, you know, George:

Why is business getting worried? Because the Chinese are holding the planet's feet to the fire. If it were a matter of reforming themselves, they wouldn't be so eager, but the Chinese are changing the planet's growth curves at calamitous speed. With the Chinese at the front table, the world simply can't live in the way the G-8 lived in the 20th century. It isn't physically possible and won't go on. To kill the planet while you are getting rich – that's one thing. But to kill the planet while the Chinese are getting rich? That just doesn't stand to reason!

There are two ways out of this conundrum: a Jared Diamond-style global collapse, or a radically new world industrial where even the likes of Wal-Mart are cybergreen. And given that Wal-Mart is a major Chinese importer, Wal-Mart is getting all interested.

Source: Lester Brown, "Plan B 2.0" Lester R. Brown, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006). (((I read it. It's not bad!)))

"LEARNING FROM CHINA â¨"From Chapter 1. Entering a New World⨠"For many years environmentalists have pointed to the United States as the world's leading consumer, noting that 5 percent of the world's people were consuming nearly a third of the earth's resources. Although that was true for some time, it no longer is. China has replaced the United States as the leading consumer of basic commodities. 11 (((Everything in the original text is lavishly footnoted and free to read, in its entirety, on the website.)))

"Among the five basic food, energy, and industrial commodities – grain and meat, oil and coal, and steel – consumption in China has eclipsed that of the United States in all but oil. China has opened a wide lead with grain, consuming 380 million tons in 2005 versus 260 million tons in the United States. Among the big three grains, China leads in the consumption of both wheat and rice and trails the United States only in corn. 12

"Although eating hamburgers is a defining element of the U.S. lifestyle, China's 2005 meat consumption of 67 million tons is far above the 38 million tons eaten in the United States. While U.S. meat intake is rather evenly distributed between beef, pork, and poultry, in China pork totally dominates. Indeed, half the world's pigs are now found in China. 13

"With oil, the United States was still solidly in the lead in 2004, using more than three times as much as China – 4 million barrels per day versus 6.5 million barrels. But U.S. oil use expanded by only 15 percent between 1994 and 2004, while use in China more than doubled. Having recently eclipsed Japan as an oil consumer, China now trails only the United States. 14

"Energy use in China also obviously includes coal, which supplies nearly two thirds of the country's energy. China's annual burning of 960 million tons easily exceeds the 560 million tons used in the United States. With this level of coal use and with oil and natural gas use also climbing fast, it is only a matter of time before China's carbon emissions match those of the United States. Then the world will have two major countries driving climate change. 15 (((Actually, ALL major countries drive climate change, but imagine the luxury of declaring the Chinese the world's CO2 villains!)))

"China's consumption of steel, a basic indicator of industrial development, is now nearly two and a half times that of the United States: 258 million tons to 104 million tons in 2003. As China has moved into the construction phase of development, building hundreds of thousands of factories and high-rise apartment and office buildings, steel consumption has climbed to levels never seen in any country. 16

"With consumer goods, China leads in the number of cell phones, television sets, and refrigerators. The United States still leads in the number of personal computers, though likely not for much longer, and in automobiles. 17

"That China has overtaken the United States in consumption of basic resources gives us license to ask the next question.

"What if China catches up with the United States in consumption per person?

"If the Chinese economy continues to grow at 8 percent a year, by 2031 income per person will equal that in the United States in 2004. If we further assume that consumption patterns of China's affluent population in 2031, by then 1.45 billion, will be roughly similar to those of Americans in 2004, we have a startling answer to our question. 18

"At the current annual U.S. grain consumption of 900 kilograms per person, including industrial use, China's grain consumption in 2031 would equal roughly two thirds of the current world grain harvest.

(((That does sound a bit "startling," doesn't it? If the booming Chinese eat two thirds of all the grain in the world in 25 years, us Boomer retirees will be getting along on Moo Goo Soylent Green Gai Pan.)))

"If paper use per person in China in 2031 reaches the current U.S. level, this translates into 305 million tons of paper – double existing world production of 161 million tons. There go the world's forests. (((Yum!)))

"And if oil consumption per person reaches the U.S. level by 2031, China will use 99 million barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 84 million barrels a day and may never produce much more. This helps explain why China's fast-expanding use of oil is already helping to create a politics of scarcity. 19

(((It's kinda cheery news, really. Look at those stats: even if, in some nihilistic burst of Yellow Peril, the Chinese destroy every other nation in the world, they STILL won't have enough oil. We can't have an industrialized world that runs on oil. We can have the genocidal ruin of a world puttering along on some dregs of oil, but otherwise, we just can't do it.)))

"Or consider cars. (((Let's!))) If China one day should have three cars for every four people, as the United States now does, its fleet would total 1.1 billion vehicles, well beyond the current world fleet of 800 million. Providing the roads, highways, and parking lots for such a fleet would require paving an area roughly equal to China's land in rice, its principal food staple. (((Let's not be all "Limits to Growth" here: maybe the Chinese can park 'em all inside a geodesic skyscraper to the Moon.)))20

"The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from these projections is that there are not enough resources for China to reach U.S. consumption levels. The western economic model – the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy – will not work for China's 1.45 billion in 2031.

"If it does not work for China, it will not work for India either, which by 2031 is projected to have even more people than China. (((That ought to stop the knowing chuckles of our Indian readers.))) Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the "American dream." (((Does anybody anywhere actually dream this "American dream" any more? Raise your hands. I've been an American for half a century and I never dreamt that for a hot second.))) And in an increasingly integrated world economy, where countries everywhere are competing for the same resources – the same oil, grain, and iron ore – the existing economic model will not work for industrial countries either. 21"

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