In the book “Stuffed and Starved,” Raj Patel notes the startling incongruity evident in the “simultaneous existence of nearly 1 billion who are malnourished and nearly 1 billion who are overweight.” The two groups’ disparate ecological footprint explains a lot of this paradox of excess and deprivation. Jared Diamond summarizes the data provocatively:
A real problem for the world is that each of us 300 million Americans consumes as much as 32 Kenyans. With 10 times the population, the United States consumes 320 times more resources than Kenya does. . . .The estimated one billion people who live in developed countries have a relative per capita consumption rate of 32. Most of the world’s other 5.5 billion people constitute the developing world, with relative per capita consumption rates below 32, mostly down toward 1.
Diamond believes that we can avoid resource shortfalls if basic conservation measures are put in place. He argues that “Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life[;] [f]or example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours.” However, a Cato Institute blogger (Randal O’Toole) appears to resist even basic steps to curb American energy consumption. He says “A better prescription would be to let markets work: If we really run short of anything, the price will go up, and people will consume less.”
O’Toole neglects to note exactly who will be consuming less, but the answer is sadly familiar. As biofuels become common, an American Hummer’s gas guzzling may well be raising prices for staple foods in the poorest parts of the world:
The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based on export prices for 60 internationally traded foodstuffs, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter. . . Rising prices for cooking oil are forcing residents of Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai, India, to ration every drop. Just in the last week, protests have erupted in Pakistan over wheat shortages, and in Indonesia over soybean shortages.
Though food prices have been rising in the United States, basic staples are becoming truly scarce for some of the world’s poorest. As the fungibility of food and fuel advances, the buying power externality strikes again.
Of course, it’s not merely “free markets'” fault here; the US needs to get out of the business of subsidizing ethanol and to revisit various conservation and public transportation strategies. Sadly, I doubt people like O’Toole would endorse the publicly financed political campaigns that could help end the former, or the planning efforts and taxes necessary to fund the latter. We can all have some hope that high prices will drive technological development. But, as Bruce Wilder puts it, “stories of ‘limitless possibilities'” do not constitute an argument.