Bill Totten has exhumed an old New York Times (1972) column by Paul Ehrlich, commenting "Nothing but the numbers has changed" - If All Chinese Had Wheels.
Now that the People's Republic of China has been admitted to the United Nations and American leaders are jetting to Peking, it is inevitable that we will be hearing more proposals for trade and aid to help the Chinese bring themselves up to "our standard of living". The idea of helping less developed nations "industrialize" or "catch up" seems as American as baseball. Few people question the common wisdom behind these programs, the idea that the developing areas of the world can somehow catch up with contemporary consumptive standards of living in industrial societies.
The emergence of China as a needy superpower must surely generate a re-evaluation of these beliefs. First, it is doubtful that the Chinese will ever reach our current standard of living; indeed it is not certain that this is even possible. But, more important, it is questionable whether such an achievement would be desirable, from any point of view. If the level of industrialization in China could be increased to the point that each Chinese family possessed an automobile and other amenities of industrial society, the effect on China and the entire world would be catastrophic. This observation immediately raises the point, of course, that the US should be considered overdeveloped by virtue of having attained a level of per capita consumption far in excess of that to which the bulk of humanity can realistically aspire.
Some very basic figures shed light on the development dilemma. There are currently at least 750 million people in mainland China. By contrast, the population of the United States is slightly over 200 million. Since there are more than 3.5 Chinese for every American, it would require some 3.5 times the present United States resource consumption to sustain China at current American levels. Such affluence in China would necessitate a tremendous shift in world consumption of raw materials.
Energy consumption is the best summary measure of industrial sophistication, and per capita energy consumption is indicative of average individual environmental impact. The world currently consumes 6.5 billion metric tons of coal equivalent in energy each year. The United States uses 2.2 billion metric tons equivalent or one-third of total world consumption. The Chinese, on the other hand, consume less than 400 million metric tons equivalent. In per capita terms, each person in China is supported by the consumption of less than 500 kilograms of coal equivalent, while his American counterpart is supported by some 11,000. Roughly speaking, twenty-two times as much energy is used to sustain an American as to sustain one citizen of China.