Note to famous geographer: people aren’t cattle

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.

5 thoughts on “Note to famous geographer: people aren’t cattle”

  1. Jared,

    Your 100 word quotation contains the only mention of terrorism in Jared Diamond’s 1400-word-long piece. If you want to take a swipe at ‘militant Islam’ or Islam in general, why not just do it?

    I don’t think poverty is the sole cause of terrorism and I doubt if Jared Diamond does either. The 911 guyes were middle-class, etc.If he oversimplified, it was for lack of space or attention: the piece was not about the causes of terrorism.

    I think economics usually does a role in causing war – of which terror is a tactic. Most people in most cultures won’t fight without a moral justification – though its form can vary greatly with culture and individual. (It is handy and common to have pre-packaged all-purpose moral justifications on the shelf.) But economics, while providing a reason for war, does not usually provide a satisfying moral justification. If your side fails to find a moral justification to fight, it doesn’t fight – at least not well.If your side doesn’t fight or doesn’t fight well, it might disappear. The worlds peoples are mostly descended from folks that fought if necessary and fought well if they fought at all.

    Diamond isn’t saying the big gap between rich and poor is new. He’s saying now is different because now we are bumping up against multiple global limits. The poor simply cannot ever consume what we, the rich, consume today. Not by developing their countries and not by leaving them. In fact, we, the rich, will have to consume less for various reasons.

    He says, “real sacrifice won’t be required.”

    We’ll see. It’s true there are ways we rich can consume less while maintaining living standards. But it doesn’t follow all those who are destined to consume less will be clever or lucky enough to maintain their standard of living.


  2. His whole premise is wrong. Modern terrorism is a product that has two main components. Someone dissatisfied enough to do a terrorist act, and that person is seldom poor and uneducated, and money. You can terrorize your neighbor on the cheap but if you want to make national or international headlines, you will need financing. The europeans had a go round with terrorism in the 70’s but it just melted away with the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s financial backer. The poor of the third world do not engage in the kind of terrorism that will get noticed here except at the behest of the rich.

  3. Jared’s piece was embarrassingly illiterate in terms of economics. As the PRC grow richer, they will bid up prices on resources (this is already happening) and if more can be produced, more will be. If more cannot be produced, we will either learn to use the resource more efficiently or current first world countries will simply buy less as their poor will be outbid by the PRC’s (or India’s or any of the up and coming behemoths’) rich and middle class. And that’s ok. Fewer of us will be grossly obese 20 years from now and we’ll have a greater appreciation of what we have. Charity will make a comeback. People will telecommute more and people will live closer to their non-telecommutable jobs.

    What will not happen is a nightmarish global war over resources.

Comments are closed.