Gap Instinct

For Apocaholics that exploit and profit from the natural pessimism of human nature, the population is always the biggest issue facing humanity, though the consumption of the people is the sum of their ‘population’ times the average ‘consumption’ rate per person. Imagine the world’s 7.5 billion people were in cold storage locker, not metabolizing/consuming, and therefore creating no resource problem. About one billion people that live mostly in the first world countries, like, North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia, consume 32 times more than the people in the developing world. Despite this Kenya’s population growth rate of over 4% per year is a sore point for Apocaholics, never mind, 330 million Americans outnumber Kenyans by 6.6:1; 60 million Italians consume almost twice as much as do the one billion people who populate the whole continent of Africa; and the US consumes 210 times more than Kenya as a whole.

Humans have a strong urge to divide things into two distinct groups with nothing but an empty gap in between them. Dichotomizing the good versus bad, heroes versus villains, my country versus the rest, dividing the world into 2 distinct sides is simple, intuitive, and dramatic. It implies conflict and we do it without thinking all the time.  It doesn’t really matter which terms people use (developing / developed world; poor/rich countries; west/rest; north/south) to describe the world as long as the words create relevant pictures in their heads and mean something with a bias in reality. The world has changed but the worldview hasn’t changed. Least in the heads of westerners; the complete world makeover in income, tourism, democracy, access to education, health care, electricity show the world is no longer divided into two. There’s hardly any gap between the west and the rest, between the developed and developing, between the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’. The binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is shockingly palpable when rich countries still say ‘they’ couldn’t be like’ us’.

We now know, as we didn’t in the 1960s that more than 6 billion people can live upon the planet in improving health, food security, and life expectancy and that this is compatible with cleaner air, increasing forest cover, and some booming populations of elephants. The resources and technologies of 1960 couldn’t have supported six billion –but technologies changed and so the resources changed. Is six billion the turning point? seven? eight? At a time when glass fiber is replacing copper cable; electrons are replacing paper and most employment involves more software than hardware only the most static of imagination could think so. Feeding nine billion people in 2050 calls for a doubling of agricultural production. Driven by a huge increase in fertilizer use in Africa, the adoption of drip irrigation, the spread of double-cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and to reduce pollution. If price signals drive the world’s farmers to take these measures it’s quite conceivable that in 2050 there’ll be 9 billion people feeding more comfortably than today off a small acreage of cropland, releasing large tracts of land for natural reserves.

High productivity, combined with low wages and massive redeployment of productive assets, has already led the third world to cost compete that the developed world simply cannot match. In effect, it’s making it impossible for the advanced nations to maintain their standards of living. As it’s attributed to globalization and the increased connectivity, Apocaholics are apprehensive of the spread of cholera, Ebola, flu, AIDS, Corona, etc. as also terrorists from poor remote countries to rich countries. The developing world, according to them, poses a huge challenge because of the integration of computing, telecommunication, the World Wide Web, and free markets. Japan was a tornado that blew through during the cold war; China and globalization are a hurricane-5-category that will never move out to sea in the post-cold war world. As developing countries consider an increase in living standards (including consumption rates) as a prime goal of national policy, people there seek the first-world lifestyle. These trends are desirable goals, rather than horrible prospects that the west is worried about.

Optimists expect that a world of 9.5 billion people can be supported, but not the world with the equivalent of 80 billion people (calculated after taking into account the factor-32). The developed world expects the developing world to volunteer to slow down its economic progress when the latter wants washing machines, electric light, decent sewage system, a fridge to store food, glasses if they’ve poor eyesight, insulin if they’ve diabetes, and transport to go on vacation with their families as much as you and I’ll do. As in the near future, the per capita consumption rates in the first world won’t be lower than they’re now, it’s also certain that per capita consumption in many populous developing countries will no longer be a factor of 32 below the first world consumption rates. The hypocritical developed world just can’t think of sacrificing its living standards just for the benefit of these people out there in the third world.

Earlier, the poor countries didn’t constitute a threat to rich countries. The poor out there didn’t know much about the lifestyle of the first world, and even if they did and got envious or angry they couldn’t do much about it. Combining middle and high-income countries that make 91% of humanity today, most of whom have integrated into the global market and made good progress toward decent lives there’re 5 billion potential consumers out there improving their lives in the middle and wanting to consume shampoo, motorcycles, and smartphones. You can easily miss them if you go around thinking they’re poor. The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across the world’s countries and people. The proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen from almost 90% to less than 10% and within the lifetimes of most of us, it’s going to reach zero.