09 August 2009

The Policy Lesson of Jared Diamond's Inconsistency

Jared Diamond's lunch with the FT was published yesterday. In it Diamond explains how people must change their ways or else risk a sustainability crisis, over an opulent lunch at his Bel Air mansion in Los Angeles (which, we are told, is "smaller and less gaudy" than its neighbors). Asked about this seeming contradiction, Diamond explains:

“The average per-person consumption rate in the first world of metal and oil and natural resources is 32 times that of the developing world,” says Diamond. “That means that one American is consuming like 32 Kenyans.” The problem is not the number of Kenyans, the problem is when Kenyans or, more pressingly, big developing countries such as China, gain the ability to consume like Americans.

Can’t humans simply increase the supply of resources as they have done before? “We can change the supply of some things if there is only one limiting resource. If it is food, then we can have a green revolution and produce more crops,” he says. “Unfortunately, we need lots of resources. We need food, we need water. We are already using something like 70 or 80 per cent of the world’s fresh water. So you say, ‘Alright, we’ll get around water by desalinating sea water.’ But then there’s the energy ceiling, and so on.”

With a nod to the feast before us, I say there seems little chance that Chinese or Indians will forgo the opportunity to live a western-style existence. Why should they? It is even more improbable that westerners will give up their resource-hungry lifestyles. Diamond, for example, is not a vegetarian, though he knows a vegetable diet is less hard on the planet. “I’m inconsistent,” he shrugs.
The point here, as it is with Al Gore's carbon footprint or any one else's, is not that Diamond is a hypocrite or a bad person. Rather the point should be obvious: asceticism does not offer a path to stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, much less global sustainability (however you'd like to define it). This thought occurs to Diamond's interviewer:
But if we can’t supply more or consume less, doesn’t that mean that, like the Easter Islander who chopped down the last tree, thus condemning his civilisation to extinction, we are doomed to drain our oceans of fish and empty our soil of nutrients?

“No. It is our choice,” he replies, perhaps subconsciously answering his critics again. “If we continue to operate non-sustainably, then in 50 or 60 years, the US and Japan and Europe will be in bad shape. But my friends in the highlands of New Guinea will be fine. Some of my friends made stone tools when they were children and they could just go back to what their ancestors were doing for 46,000 years. New Guinea highlanders are not doomed,” he says, draining his pomegranate juice. “The first world lifestyle will be doomed if we don’t learn to operate sustainably.”

So we should all be so lucky as New Guniea highlanders? Right. As a policy analysis this line of thinking falls well short of credulity for obvious reasons. Diamond's inconsistency should tell us is that sustainability must be made compatible with first world standards of living, because once you pose them as trade-offs, guess which one is going to win out? For just about everyone, Jared Diamond included, standards of living are not negotiable. Policy proposals should start by accepting this reality, otherwise they are simply "magical solutions."