University of California geography professor Jared Diamond — of Guns, Germs and Steel fame — opines in today’s New York Times about world consumption factors. These are measures of “the average rates at which people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases.” Diamond observes the great chasm in consumption rates between first-world countries like the United States, and the rates of third-world nations. Developed nations out consume their underdeveloped neighbors by a factor of 32.
His article teeters on becoming alarmist, but Diamond is right about the gross disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Though the consumption factor may indeed be higher than ever before, it is not a new trend in the history of mankind to have a large gap between rich and poor. Diamond really falls short, however, in his oversimplificaiton of what causes world problems. Take this paragraph for example:
People in the third world are aware of this difference in per capita consumption, although most of them couldn’t specify that it’s by a factor of 32. When they believe their chances of catching up to be hopeless, they sometimes get frustrated and angry, and some become terrorists, or tolerate or support terrorists. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has become clear that the oceans that once protected the United States no longer do so. There will be more terrorist attacks against us and Europe, and perhaps against Japan and Australia, as long as that factorial difference of 32 in consumption rates persists.
Diamond completely ignores cultural differences that contribute to terrorism. After all, there are plenty of developing third-world nations that aren’t involved in terrorist activity. They’re also conspicuously absent of militant Islam.
Such a view treats people as cattle, with the next meal as a people’s only motivating factor for taking up arms. It’s naïve to cast aside the religious and cultural beliefs of a people in the interpretation of its actions. Consumption is certainly important in a world economy, but it is never the sole catalyst for civilization.