Readers would not often catch Lord Curzon perusing the pages of Mother Jones, a liberal-progressive commentary magazine. However, a recent article subtitled, “Can the world survive China’s headlong rush to emulate the American way of life?” caught my eye like few other articles have so far in 2008. That question is, I believe, the most important question we must ask ourselves over the next few decades.
China has also become a ravenous consumer. Its appetite for raw materials drives up international commodity prices and shipping rates while its middle class, projected to jump from fewer than 100 million people now to 700 million by 2020, is learning the gratifications of consumerism. China is by a wide margin the leading importer of a cornucopia of commodities, including iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel. It is the world’s biggest consumer of coal, refrigerators, grain, cell phones, fertilizer, and television sets. It not only leads the world in coal consumption, with 2.5 billion tons in 2006, but uses more than the next three highest-ranked nations—the United States, Russia, and India—combined. China uses half the world’s steel and concrete and will probably construct half the world’s new buildings over the next decade. So omnivorous is the Chinese appetite for imports that when the country ran short of scrap metal in early 2004, manhole covers disappeared from cities all over the world—Chicago lost 150 in a month. And the Chinese are not just vast consumers, but conspicuous ones, as evidenced by the presence in Beijing of dealers representing every luxury-car manufacturer in the world. Sales of Porsches, Ferraris, and Maseratis have flourished, even though their owners have no opportunity to test their finely tuned cars’ performance on the city’s clotted roads.
American consumption patterns such as personal transporation in the form of automobiles, high meat consumption, and a carelessly profligent lifestyle by the average consumer is simply not sustainable on a wordlwide scale. How the world copes with that reality may be one of the dominant questions of the 21st century.