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October 20, 2005

Radical Economic Restructuring: Less Than A Generation Away

-- by Thomas Leavitt

As a recent article in the UK Independent, China Crisis: Threat to the Global Environment, points out, the demands that China's economic growth can be anticipated to put on world markets, less than a generation from now, exceed the entire world's current and anticipated production capacity. There is simply literally no possible way that they can be fulfilled. Hell, we know that, right now, TODAY, if everything froze, the world's current levels of resource consumption are simply not sustainable.

China "has now overtaken the United States as the world's leading consumer of four out of the five basic food, energy and industrial commodities - grain, meat, oil, coal and steel. China now lags behind the US only in consumption of oil - and it is rapidly catching up."

What does this mean? Simple: we are living on borrowed time. I've been searching for a polite way to say this, but there really isn't one... the blunt and awful truth is this: if you are reading this, the odds are quite strong that, twenty years from now, you will be significantly less well off, in terms of the material resources (energy, food, raw materials) available to sustain your standard of living, than you are now. We are talking RADICAL lifestyle adjustments, folks - Americans and Europenas are going to have to learn how to "share", in a MAJOR fashion - right now, there are roughly 1 billion of us consuming at an unsustainable rate - and 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians working feverishly to catch up.

The catching up process is, necessarily, going to involve us moving backwards even faster than they move forwards... the Delphi workers whose $27/hr. wages are unsustainable in the face of $3/hr Chinese workers, are only the most obvious example. Crank down their wages to $10-12/hr., and suddenly the gap between the two isn't that big... in fact, Ii'd say that, a generation from now, your typical Chinese manufacturing worker is going to be making roughly equivalent to what the U.S. worker makes. There will be no labor cost advantage to manufacturing in China.

Here's an obvious collary: the CHINESE WORKER is NEVER going to make $27/hr. In fact, he's never going to make even $15/hr. The $10-12/hr the post-bankruptcy Delphi workers are going to get pretty clearly puts a cap on what the Chinese worker can expect to earn in the future.

Here's the tough part, for those of us who are parents: we are going to have to watch our children grow up, and walk out into the world on their own in the middle of this. More specifically, we are going to have to watch as our children see the implicit promises being made to them today, by our wildly materialistic and conspicuous consumption happy media culture, broken, hell, not just broken, but shattered,.

Posted by Thomas Leavitt at October 20, 2005 2:08 AM

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Arguably there are ways to avoid this, but they involve industrializing near-earth space in a big way, and I don't think we have the brains or foresight to do that.

Of course if we don't industrialize space, we are going to face resource wars fought with thermonuclear weapons, because obviously if it comes down to us or the Chinese, we're going to vote for us (mind you, I would too).

Posted by: Susan at October 20, 2005 6:39 AM

There are intelligent ways to make this less painful, assuming we're capable of intelligent action, which I doubt. Some countries haven't been as stupid as us. For example, we've structured our transportation systems on the least economical and most wasteful systems possible -- car, truck, and airplane, neglecting public transportation, railroads and shipping. We can eat far less meat; and, in fact, can eat far less and thrive. We could still preserve the family farm and feed ourself locally. Luckily China scores very high on population control; India doesn't yet. We won't much longer if the administration gets its way. Instead of going back to the 19th cent. ideologically and socially, we'll have to do this to some extent economically, relying much more on community and local resources. Ideologically, the country needed to expand in the 19th cent. Now it needs to conserve its resources and shrink its population.

Posted by: MJ at October 20, 2005 7:04 AM

I happen to think that if we can get nuclear fusion to work, and if we can solve the problem of global warming, then humanity will be okay.

There are many things the world can do, but they all require energy -- massive energy for research, for manufacture, etc. I believe that with sufficient energy sources, we can have a sustainable lifestyle, and even if parts of society collapse from overpopulation, humanity will be able to recover.

But not without energy to power the recovery.

As an aside, if we must choose between collapse of civilization and a runaway greenhouse effect, the collapse will be far preferable.

Posted by: John H. Morrison at October 20, 2005 9:43 AM

If we do get fusion working, we can afford to waste energy right and left. Other things -- land, plants -- will limit population growth, so exponential population growth won't hit the limits of fusion. There's plenty of deuterium in the oceans and lithium (for manufacturing tritium if necessary) in the ground. If that ever ran short, it would be feasible to mine Jupiter for deuterium and astroids or moons for lithium.

Posted by: John H. Morrison at October 20, 2005 9:50 AM

Sounds to me like the hippies were right. Seriously.

Posted by: richard [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2005 12:34 PM

Thanks for cheering me up, Thomas - NOT!

Posted by: Helga Fremlin at October 20, 2005 5:17 PM

I agree with Richard. The hippies WERE right.

Posted by: MJ at October 21, 2005 7:14 AM

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