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How We Talk About Scarcity

Jad Mouawad has a long piece in The New York Times on skyrocketing demand for oil. It doesn't break any new ground, but it's a nice summary of the state of global oil markets. I question the value, though, of discussing things in this manner:

William Chandler, an energy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, estimates that if the Chinese were using energy like Americans, global energy use would double overnight and five more Saudi Arabias would be needed just to meet oil demand. India isn’t far behind. By 2030, the two counties will import as much oil as the United States and Japan do today.

One often hears reference to things like "five Saudi Arabias" or "seven Earths" in describing what sort of resources would be required if everyone were to consume at American levels given current technology. I suppose this at least illustrates the (obvious) point that Westerners (and especially Americans) consume far more energy per capita than the rest of the world. But, as the old saying goes, if something's unsustainable, it won't be sustained. We don't have five more Saudi Arabias. So it seems to me that it would be more helpful to think in terms of what will actually happen as consumption in developing countries continues to increase--at what price will the supply curve and the demand curve intersect in the future? At what point would other technologies--electric cars powered by solar energy, for instance--become cheaper than oil? To what degree might global market constraints force Americans to lower their own consumption levels? Clearly, answers to these questions would be very rough estimates at best, but a conversation along these lines would still be far more productive than simply throwing out impressive-sounding but ultimately meaningless numbers about levels of consumption that won't be achieved with current technology.

--Josh Patashnik