Throwing Out the Throwaway Economy

One of the more recent garbage crises is unfolding in China, where, like everything else in the country, the amount of garbage generated is growing fast. Xinhua, a Chinese wire service, reports that a survey using an airborne remote sensor detected 7,000 garbage dumps, each larger than 50 square meters in the suburbs of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing. A large share of China’s garbage is recycled, burned, or composted, but an even larger share is dumped in landfills (where they are available) or simply heaped up in unoccupied areas.

These examples of China’s waste problems are disturbing by themselves. But a broader analysis of potential consumption patterns in China in the near future shows why the existing western economic model as a whole will fail.

For almost as long as I can remember we have been saying that the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s people, consumes a third or more of the earth’s resources. That was true. It is no longer true. Today China consumes more basic resources than the United States does.

Among the key commodities such as grain, meat, oil, coal, and steel, China consumes more of each than the United States except for oil, where the United States still has a wide (though narrowing) lead. China uses a third more grain than the United States. Its meat consumption is nearly double that of the United States. It uses three times as much steel.

These numbers reflect national consumption, but what would happen if consumption per person in China were to catch up to that of the United States? If we assume that China’s economy slows from the 10 percent annual growth of recent years to 8 percent, then before 2030 income per person in China will reach the level it is in the United States today.

If we also assume that the Chinese will spend their income more or less as Americans do today, then we can translate their income into consumption. If, for example, each person in China consumes paper at the current American rate, then in 2030 China’s 1.46 billion people will more paper than the world produces today. There go the world’s forests.

If we assume that in 2030 there are three cars for every four people in China, as there now are in the United States, China will have 1.1 billion cars. The world currently has 860 million cars. To provide the needed roads, highways, and parking lots, China would have to pave an area comparable to what it now plants in rice.
By 2030 China would need 98 million barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 85 million barrels a day and may never produce much more than that. There go the world’s oil reserves.

What China is teaching us is that the western economic model—the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy—is not going to work for China. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India, which by 2030 may have an even larger population than China. Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the “American dream.” And in an increasingly integrated global economy, where we all depend on the same grain, oil, and steel, the western economic model will no longer work for the industrial countries either.

The overriding challenge for our generation is to build a new economy—one that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, that has a much more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything. We have the technology to build this new economy, an economy that will allow us to sustain economic progress. Can we build it fast enough to avoid a breakdown of social systems?

Adapted from Chapter 1, “Entering a New World,” and Chapter 6, “Early Signs of Decline,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at www.earthpolicy.org/Books/PB3/index.htm.

Images courtesy D’Arcy Norman via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

  1. Michelle

    I am currently reading Lester Brown’s book “Eco-Economy” which I am realizing I should have read years ago. Nevertheless, this book is a true eye-opener, and I can’t put it down. I am engaged by every page and I can’t wait to read his next book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

  2. Bobby B.

    “Overpopulation will kill us all!” used to be the mantra of the environmental movement. This post simply restates that position to say, “Overconsumption by populations that emulate the evil western economies will kill us all!” However, even though the greens have no new plays in their great big statist playbook, there is some truth in both versions of this all too often repeated declaration.

    In the animal kingdom, when herds move to an area that lacks predators and the herd’s numbers increase to a point that it consumes more resources than the land can produce, famine, disease and pestilence eventually rebalance the equation. If the green alarmists are correct about the ever-looming global apocalypse, then there really is not very much that can be done. If we continue down our current path, nature (famine, disease, pestilence, etc.) will reduce our numbers naturally. If we listen to the greens and make sweeping reforms to the developed and the developing nations of the world, the suffering and deaths will still occur because the only answers that they have involve abandoning the mechanisms that western man has developed to improve mankind’s lot on this planet. Their path includes eliminating plenty in favor of sustenance living; increasing the number of abortions; providing end of life counseling instead of health care for the elderly; taxing carbon to stifle industrial growth and better pay for employees (i.e. bankrupting the middle class); converting food into fuel; auditing our homes for energy efficiency and putting us on the street if the structure is deemed to be below code; eliminating pesticides and herbicides that protect us from disease and make adequate food production possible; and instituting a host of other programs that if successful at staving off the inevitable makes living miserable. In truth, their plans seek less to fix the planet than to impoverish all of mankind; and to subjugate all to some green ruling body, or global emperor, or god.

    So, basically, mankind – assuming the greens are right about the apocalypse – has two choices:

    1. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.


    2. Starve, thirst and be destitute for the day after tomorrow we die.

    Either way, the end – or the beginning – will come. Maybe it’s time to listen to “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness.”

  3. Tara

    The interesting thing about our throw-away society is that now we try to justify our obscene amount of waste with the recycling factor. It is seen as acceptable that we continue to purchase and buy disposable products because we will recycle the waste. Even so the energy and resources used to recycle plastics is still damaging to the environment. Even though we know the damage disposable products have on the environment and that resources are depleting at an unsustainable rate; recycling will magically fix all of those problems. But we all know it won’t. Americans are just not willing to sacrifice their convenience. If attitudes don’t change than we will be forced to change our lifestyles because of the detrimental, irreversible damage we have caused

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *