Sustainable Growth and the American Way of Life

A few interesting facts:

  • If Chinese economy keeps growing at the same rate it is growing now, by 2030 its GDP will have more or less caught up with that of the United States of A.
  • Its population will also have reached an overall population peak (peak in workforce population will happen before, in ten years or so). Conservative estimates would give it a population of 1.4 billion people around that time.
  • Current U.S. population is estimated at a little under 300 million people (and growing fast, thanks to steady fertility and migration flux).
  • As it is, at its current GDP and population levels and growth, the United States consume roughly 30% of most resources available worldwide. Particularly in certain areas such as: non-renewable energy, food (grain and meat), minerals etc.
  • By most reasonable estimates (read: those not directly financed by the Project for a New American Century or some such), current use of world resource is fairly close to optimal exploitation. 80% is a figure commonly given.
  • If China’s current upper-class is any indicator: once introduced to the virtues of the American Way of Life, Chinese people gladly embrace the model and aspire to nothing more than emulating the consumerist habits of the average U.S. citizen.

Now, basic mathematics and a wide margin of error (in favor of a Fluffy-Rabbits-in-a-Perfect-World hypothesis) would seem to indicate that, by 2030, China will be using a neat 100% of all world resources to sustain its own population’s consumption. And keep in mind that this consumption is only based on current consumption habits of the American population, not even taking in account the fact that it seems to double every few decades or so.

Gee, I guess we have a little problem after all.

This little exercise makes a few bold assumptions such as the fact that world resource supply will not only maintain (while many serious analysts contend that it will all but dwindle by then, particularly in the case of fossile fuel) but even grow so as to reach its full potential. That means pretty much every possible miracle in the book, short of discovering that the moon is indeed made of a soft cheese crust, filled to the brim with crude oil. Additionally, it doesn’t even start taking in account other factors, such as ecological footprint, water pollution, gas emissions etc. (but we all know that global warming is just a vast liberal conspiracy after all).

Adding India, Africa, Russia, Europe and, well, the whole rest of the world, to the mix, makes it an even more interesting problem.

And a few hard cold numbers for the data crowd out there.


  1. Do these figures take into consideration that the majority of Chinese still live in rural areas and thus a very simple life. See Kristen’s blog for details.

    An interesting fact I learned today – there are more people learning English in China than the entire population of the US. hhhmmm a growth industry?

  2. Tracey dear: current level of China’s industrialization and important rural areas (quickly changing though) is most definitely taken in account. Without this, there would be no way that China, with over three times the population of the US at the moment, would remain a measly 10% over the US in resource consumption.

    China sure is growing, and it is difficult to foresee what it will be in the long term, but more than Chinese growth, what this comparaison emphasizes is that, the “American way of life”, i.e. crazy levels of consumerism and massive waste, with no regard for actual availability, is simply not sustainable in the short-to-medium term…

  3. Sure its is a scary thought to see the world not making use of resources in a rational way, but my impression is that the US population would not worry about its destructive consumerism if no competitors were in sight, so if the world is going down the sink let’s enjoy its demise together!

  4. Ehrlich’s doomsday scenario fell flat on its face because he completely ignored the ability of people to adapt, innovate, compensate and improvise. In addition, it is clear that his view of the worlds finite resources was grossly underestimated. In the worst case scenario, a complete exhaustion of the worlds crude oil supplies would mean one thing, hydrogen cell and other technologies that exist today but are languishing would then become commercially viable. These technologies exist today, and allthough there are still adjustments that need to be made, when the demand for alternative energy finally arives there will be those individuals who will rise to meet it.

    Consumption means production, production means companies and jobs, the only two lasting entities the world has ever known to eradicate poverty.

  5. Sustainable Growth is a myth put about by persons with a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo. Politicians who know know the electorate will not vote for someone who advocates a lowering of living standards. Industrialists who cannot tell shareholders they must reduce or stop production or bear to contemplate having to live on one percent of their present income. Free enterprise maniacs who believe laissez-faire capitalism is economic perfection. The vast majority of people want to believe the myth and hope growth can continue for ever.

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