If all the world consumed energy at the rate of the United States, the total energy consumed would be just under 2200 quadrillion Btu (British thermal units). At current energy production, this would require at least three more Earths and would never happen. Thus, without much economic structuring, the prosperity enjoyed by those in developed countries can never be achieved by the majority of those in developing nations. The current system of global resource distribution is inherently unjust, for it consigns billions of people to poverty; yet if today the impoverished multitudes were to reach for the material promises of modernity, the entire system would collapse.
It is no secret that the United States currently maintains the largest military in the world, outclassing something like the next twenty countries in line combined. In fact, the United States will spend 55% of its discretionary budget on “national defense” in 2015. With Canada to the North, Mexico to the South, the Pacific to the West, and the Atlantic to the East, what, exactly, is our military defending?
Simply put, it is defending the current system of global resource distribution. This is why the United States acted after Saddam Hussein invaded oilrich Kuwait, but not when he directed a genocide against the Kurds. This is why the United States gives military aid to Saudi Arabia—its second largest importer of oil—even though Saudi Arabia’s government is an oppressive theocracy. And this is why the United States military seeks to establish “full spectrum dominance”: it is all about controlling the flow of resources.
One could easily argue that certain countries like India are simply underdeveloped, and this accounts for the disparity in energy consumption; but if a country as large as India consumed at the rate of the United States, it would require twothirds of all the energy produced in 2014. Consider that at any given time, humans are extracting as much energy and resources as technology will feasibly allow. We have to since the world gains a net person every 13 seconds.
Because of this, if certain regions receive disproportionately large amounts of the continuous flow of energy, other regions will receive disproportionately small amounts. Let us look at global energy consumption as a group of dogs being fed by a human. Assume this human feeds the dogs with a steady stream of bacon bits, to symbolize the continuous extraction of resources. The dogs, of course, eat these bits as soon as they become available. However, a few dogs eat huge servings, leaving the rest with relatively tiny amounts. In time, there are a few big, healthy dogs and many emaciated ones.
The only reason those few dogs became strong so quickly was because they took a disproportionate share. And it is ridiculous to think that the emaciated dogs would have chosen not to eat had they been given the chance, just as it is ridiculous to assume that, given 400 years and the absence of imperialism, the peoples of South America, Africa, and Asia would have never found innovative ways of employing their resources and improving their standards.
This basically summarizes the historical patterns of colonization and development. Because the United States and Europe were able to take disproportionate shares of global resources through processes of colonization and imperialism, they were able to develop faster. And with the technological fruits of development, the United States and Europe have been able to perpetuate the disproportionate systems of resource distribution that initially brought them to prominence. The consequence: five billion people live in poverty, and half the world’s children live in poverty. The majority of the world was robbed of the opportunity to develop independently, and its current “development” is directly primarily by first world entities like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
In 2014 the United States will consume 96.2 quadrillion Btu, representing 17.5% of the world’s total energy consumption. By contrast, China, India, and Brazil combined will only consume 166.4 quadrillion Btus. The United States’ population constitutes 4.4% of the world’s population; the combined populations of China, India, and Brazil 39% of the world’s population. If those three countries were to consume energy at a rate equivalent to the that of the United States, they would consume 852 quadrillion Btu 52% more than all the energy that will be consumed in 2014. Absurd.
China, India, and Brazil also have some of the highest growth rates of energy consumption in the world: 2.6%, 2.8%, and 2.1% respectively. While these rates may seem small and benign, they are, in fact, terrifying. Consider China. Given a growth rate of just 2.6%, China’s energy consumption will double in just 27 years and at current growth rates, the world’s energy consumption will double by 2060. In that time interval, the energy consumed will be greater than all the energy consumed in all of previous human history, and this assumes that India with its 1.2 billion people will not experience the rapid development occurring in China. Then there is all of urbanizing Africa and Latin America to consider.
Democracy and capitalism only work in concert with egalitarian principles; without them, democracy is plutocracy, and capitalism is exploitation. What is more, it is impossible for the global economy in its present manifestation to not relegate billions to poverty, for it is predicated upon old imperial structures.
In the coming decades and centuries, as Africa, South America, and Asia continue to develop and demand more resources, either human suffering will increase tremendously or the global economy will have to be totally restructured. Even should the latter come to pass, humanity will still have to grapple with the demands of a totally developed, completely urbanized population. Perhaps the intellectual potential of an extra five billion people could help.
Arithmetic, population and energy. Dir. Albert A. Bartlett. University of Colorado, Academic Media Services, 1994. Film.
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“U.S. Energy Information Administration EIA Independent Statistics and Analysis.” U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). U.S. Energy Information Administration , n.d. Web. 23 June 2014. <http://www.eia.gov/>.