Why are the world's resources distributed the way they are?
March 8, 2011 1:15 PM   Subscribe

Why are the world's resources distributed the way they are?

Are there any books and statistics on the resources of the world and how they are distributed and how that distribution MUST change for the world to be sustainable?

For example, its probably true that we have enough food in the world to feed everyone. It just isn't distributed.

The same for money, food, shelter, medicine, etc, - the world really should big enough to accommodate everyone up to a sustainable point.

It just seems like governments never have enough money even in wealthy countries and are always in 'debt'. How and why? Excuse my lack of financial things.

The big question is how should humans live our lives to make the world sustainable?

No cars, 2 kids max, veggie diet??

I would tend to think that mathematically, it can be calculated and equations can model future growth - although politics, countries, dictators will likely mess it up.

I just want to know what the ideal situation should be.

It just seems like consumerism and trade is touted as the way to go.

I'm not saying we should go back to the dark ages but why can't we focus on the important things in life. Why the hell should people work 9 to 5 to save for retirement? Aren't we working longer than previous generations?

And what the hell is money anyways? We have billions of people in the world - we can change the world with proper sharing of resources.

If people have food, shelter, love and reasonable health, morals, and some wisdom, isn't that more important than money.

Idealistic and naive? Yes, probably for sure.

But this is 2010, can't we expedite a little more wisdom in the world?

So any books on what the 'right' thing for the human race to to do would be good.

My crystal ball says in the far future, there will be no concept of a country, religions will merge, and we'll value wisdom more than intelligence.

There must be people seriously studying this.
posted by simpleton to Religion & Philosophy (34 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Wealth, Power, Greed - based on historical events, scenarios and situations.

There - that should about wrap it up.
posted by jkaczor at 1:19 PM on March 8, 2011

Not sure what chatfilter means.

But if there are specific books, articles studying this, I would appreciate it.
posted by simpleton at 1:19 PM on March 8, 2011

Why are your sentences distributed the way they are?

Your question is too big, and actually has 19 other questions in it, all of which are too big for anyone to answer meaningfully. But the answer to the first one is geography. Some areas are warmer/cooler/have more fertile soil/have strong winds/are based on solid rock/whatever.
posted by doublehappy at 1:19 PM on March 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies, chapter 7: "Third World Facts and Fallacies."
posted by John Cohen at 1:20 PM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies would be a good start.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:20 PM on March 8, 2011 [8 favorites]

Not sure what chatfilter means.

So you didn't read this website's FAQ before making a post on this website? That's unfortunate.
posted by John Cohen at 1:21 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The question is big I know but that's why I'm looking for big references..like a book.

Although I have some interested in why things are the way the are now, I'm more interested in any research pointing to how things 'should' or could be.
posted by simpleton at 1:22 PM on March 8, 2011

Why the West Rules (For Now) is another good start.
posted by plep at 1:22 PM on March 8, 2011

I actually have read Guns, Germs and Steel a few years back. That was good as far as explaining why the Europeans overtook North America.

But any research going on regarding how to make the world sustainable?
posted by simpleton at 1:23 PM on March 8, 2011

Seconding Guns, Germs, and Steel. The transcript of the first episode of the TV show version attempts to answer your question – read it.
posted by halogen at 1:24 PM on March 8, 2011

So I read the chatfilter definition just now.

I think the question is still valid as I'm looking for specific books/references related to the worlds resources and how they should be ideally managed.
posted by simpleton at 1:26 PM on March 8, 2011

But any research going on regarding how to make the world sustainable?

Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble is exactly what you are looking for. New, updated version which I have not personally read.
posted by halogen at 1:26 PM on March 8, 2011

Very interesting plep - 750 pages.
posted by simpleton at 1:27 PM on March 8, 2011

Also by Jared Diamond - Collapse.
posted by plep at 1:31 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

These are great suggestions....this is what I was looking for.
posted by simpleton at 1:33 PM on March 8, 2011

As the earth formed and folded, areas of richer and poorer resources manifested - rivers were good for food and commerce, in some places usable minerals and ores were near the surface and easier to get at - and groups of early humans fought over these places and the winners drove their competitors out into the poorer areas. After that it's a mix of the rich getting richer and might makes right.
And the way in which a group could become so well situated that they could afford leisure time to invent new ways to use new stuff found in and on the ground. Oh and natural disasters screwing with everybody (they had freaking ELEVATORS in Pompeii before the volcano trashed their society and economy and everyone's crops and set things back quite a pace).
And sooooo many more things.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 1:33 PM on March 8, 2011

The Brundtland Report "Our Common Future" is from the 1990s but may be sort of what you are after.
posted by Kerasia at 1:34 PM on March 8, 2011

I haven't read these, but they're on my bookshelf and may address some of your questions on how humans should live their lives to make the world sustainable and the "'right' thing to do":

The End of Poverty - "Rather than a sense of how daunting the world's problems are, Sachs provides an understanding of how solvable they are — and why making the effort is both our ethical duty and a self-interested strategic necessity. "

The Idea of Justice
posted by mistersix at 1:42 PM on March 8, 2011

The question is big I know but that's why I'm looking for big references..like a book.

A book is not a big enough reference for what you're asking. The answer to your question and sub-questions requires you to consume and understand the collective knowledge and scholarship of virtually every department of every major university in the world, starting with the economics departments.

But before you try to tackle that, let me suggest that you start listening to NPR's Planet Money podcast every week.
posted by The World Famous at 1:47 PM on March 8, 2011

You might try "The Ascent of money" by Niall Ferguson, which is both a PBS special and a book. Also This American Life's "the invention of money," episode 423. Money is a fiction, of course. A notation system that is more efficient than barter. No one is planning how to redistribute the world's resources because a) no one has a legitimate monopoly of force over the whole world, i.e. there is no single world government which everyone has agreed to obey when it suggests who should get what, b) it is too difficult for any human organization to successfully plan for and satisfy all the needs and desires of every human, and everyone who's tried it has failed miserably, c) the people whom you (or the future utopian one world government) have decided have too much stuff may not agree that they have too much stuff and if they don't you have to either let the perceived injustice persist or take their stuff by force.
posted by Diablevert at 1:49 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

From an environmental starting standpoint, if you search "global carrying capacity" or "ecological footprint" you'll come up with a lot of stuff about what would have to happen to make our current population sustainable (in terms of not exhausting resources) and what would need to happen to consumption levels for that to happen. One pretty standard starting point for thinking about the factors involved here is by a guy named Ehlrich who writes on this stuff and is:

I = P * A * T, where I = environmental impact, P = population, A = consumption per capita (affluence of the population), and T = technological advances which can offset impact.

But there are a ton of different ways to look at this. You're not going to find your answer in a book, or even in a hundred books. People are actively debating all the things you are asking questions about.
posted by geegollygosh at 1:58 PM on March 8, 2011

You know, in previous generations, people really didn't "retire". They worked until they couldn't work anymore, and then if they were lucky, someone else would care for them until they died. And that's how it still is in a lot of countries that you might be thinking of as having fewer resources than your own.

I've done a lot of geneology research and occasionally I'll come across someone listed as "retired" in old census records but rarely enough that I could tell you exactly who, in my family tree, was that lucky. And I seriously doubt they were just golfing all day, even still.
posted by padraigin at 2:18 PM on March 8, 2011

You should look into economics, and development economics in particular. Maybe you could audit a college course on intro development economics or take something at a community college? Doing something like that might give you a good framework for your questions.

I'm far, far from any kind of expert on these questions, but in general when you start looking at these problems you run into a giant wall of complexity. Your question seems to take as given what people value and that all people value the same basic things; in reality, things are more complicated. The most interesting research in economics, in my opinion, tries to find ways to make the world a better place in the context of how people actually behave and focuses on specific, achievable goals.
posted by MadamM at 2:20 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

[folks, this isn't chatfilter if you're giving the guy something to read, please don't start debating sustainability and we'll be okay, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:22 PM on March 8, 2011

If you're interested in "should," then you're interested in philosophy. For the sort of thing you're looking for, you might like Peter Singer's recent writing.
posted by decathecting at 2:23 PM on March 8, 2011

Oh! I forgot to suggest any reading. In my intro econ classes, articles from the Journal of Economic Perspectives have frequently shown up on the reading lists. And all the articles since 1999 are available for free!

The journal "attempts to fill a gap between the general interest press and most other academic economics journals", which means you get a lot of experts in different fields summarizing their research findings in a more approachable way than a typical economics article- so light on the math, heavy on the interesting. To get started, go here, choose Journal of Economic Perspectives, and search for "development". That and wikipedia or an intro econ textbook should get you started.
posted by MadamM at 2:39 PM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

You know, these are the kinds of questions you can generally answer by sitting down with a piece of paper and a pen and get there on your own.
Start now. Select some element of the present whose past you wish to understand better. Think of as many possible direct causes for such an event as you can. Select the simplest. Then do the same for that. You'll build up a probably false but super interesting human chronology that way. Do it a few times and you'll be ready to:

Start at the start. Imagine a state of nature (look it up) and imagine interactions at individual, group, societal levels. See how groups might form in situations. See how certain activities or behaviours or types of people might change distributions. For example, a group that favoured aggression might initially collect more resources but also might be unstable and short lived.
But it's too big and too controversial for there to be any sort of consensus. We're living the answers to your questions. Books are too small.
posted by doublehappy at 3:18 PM on March 8, 2011

Finding the solution is pretty tough, I think, but I know of a few books that describe the history behind the problem:

Open Veins of Latin America, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, and Late Victorian Holocausts are some ideas.
posted by serazin at 3:37 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

idealistic and naive
You might be interested in Transhumanism.
posted by sninctown at 4:21 PM on March 8, 2011

Something that a lot of people don't give credit too when discussing resource flows around the world is that resources are going to flow to areas that do the most with them. This is capatilism (and I think kinda human nature). The US has the highest economic output in gross and per capita, it makes sense that most of the worlds valuable resources are going to flow to a country that does the most with them.

This is kinda harsh on the rest of the world and the reasons why the US is on top right now are much more complex and involve history, economics, and just plain luck. It is the US on top now, who knows tomorrow? 20 years ago we were all sayign japan, now china (actually historically China has been on top for most of the time their has been civilization).
posted by bartonlong at 4:31 PM on March 8, 2011

Would also add Ishmael to the list - comparison of cultural views on resources, ownership and entitlement, among other things.
See also Status Anxiety.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 4:37 PM on March 8, 2011

As long as the human population continues to grow, there can be no real sustainability.

Endless amounts of argument is regularly devoted to helping people stay in denial about this basic point.

Imbalances of wealth distribution are also absolutely inevitable unless there is some kind of forced redistribution mechanism in place. Without taxation or something like it, the free market operates to allocate scarce resources to the people best able to pay for them; this creates a positive resource-control feedback loop that makes the rich get richer wherever there is trade.

It is true that any given trade does in general enrich both parties to the transaction. This fact is the main underpinning for ideological support for the idea that free trade is an unmitigated good. But never forget to look for the side-effects of trade on non-traders; it is by no means clear that the good done by trade always outweighs these.

Abolishing private property, making it all collective and sharing it allegedly equitably doesn't help either, because some relatively small group of people will always end up in charge of organizing the sharing arrangements, and you're back with the problem of small numbers of people controlling what happens to large amounts of resources.

So, the right way to run an economy has elements of both private property and collective property, and this is in fact the way every country works now. To find the countries that we should all be looking to as models for sustainability, look for places with solid rule of law, highly progressive taxation regimes, and low and mainly immigration-driven population growth.

As for personal action: if you want to reduce the resource consumption that you are personally responsible for as much as you possibly can, commit to non-reproduction. If you have no children, you remove all of the resource consumption performed by a tree of descendants of potentially unlimited size.

There are already plenty of children alive right now in desperate need of a caring, loving family to grow up in. Create a space for a few of those instead of making more.
posted by flabdablet at 5:48 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You need world-systems theory; I'm a great admirer of the the work of the late Giovanni Arrighi.
posted by Abiezer at 10:08 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

These kind of questions need a good background in human history. I would highly recommend the Penguin History of the World by J.M.Roberts.

Also, much by Jared Diamond, as previously mentioned, is to be recommended. John Ralston Saul talks about these types of issues, particularly in Voltaire's Bastards (lefty alert), and George Monbiot has an interesting perspective too.
posted by bigZLiLk at 10:24 PM on April 9, 2011

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