The world is consuming goods and services
at an unsustainable pace, with serious consequences for the well-being
of people and the planet, reports the Worldwatch Institute in its
annual report, State of the World 2004. Around 1.7 billion people
worldwidemore than a quarter of humanityhave entered
the consumer class, adopting the diets, transportation
systems and lifestyles that were limited to the rich nations of
Europe, North America and Japan during most of the last century.
In China alone, 240 million people have joined the ranks of consumersa
number that will soon surpass that in the United States.
Rising consumption has helped meet basic needs and create
jobs, says Worldwatch Institute president Christopher Flavin.
But as we enter a new century, this unprecedented consumer
appetite is undermining the natural systems we all depend on, and
making it even harder for the worlds poor to meet their basic
Higher levels of obesity and personal debt, chronic time shortages
and a degraded environment are all signs that excessive consumption
is diminishing the quality of life for many people, he continued.
The challenge now is to mobilize governments, businesses and
citizens to shift their focus away from the unrestrained accumulation
of goods and toward finding ways to ensure a better life for all.
Private consumption expendituresthe amount spent on goods
and services at the
household levelhave increased fourfold since 1960, topping
more than $20 trillion in 2000, reports State of the World 2004.
The 12 percent of the worlds people living in North America
and Western Europe account for 60 percent of this consumption, while
the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa account
for only 3.2 percent.
Consumption among the worlds wealthy elites, and increasingly
among the middle class, has in recent decades gone beyond satiating
needs or fulfilling dreams to become an end in its own right, note
State of the World 2004 project directors Lisa Mastny and Brian
Halweil. At the same time, consumption is rising rapidly in the
developing world, as globalization has introduced millions of people
to consumer goods, while providing the technology and capital to
produce and disseminate them.
Nearly half of all global consumers now live in the developing
world, says Mastny. While the average Chinese or Indian
consumes much less than the average North American or European,
China and India alone now boast a combined consumer class larger
than that in all of Western Europe.
Consumption is not in itself a bad thing, adds Halweil. The
almost three billion people worldwide who barely survive on less
than $2 per day will need to ramp up their consumption in order
to satisfy basic needs for food, clean water and sanitation. And
in China, the rush to meet surging consumer demand is stimulating
the economy, creating jobs and attracting
There is little evidence that the consumption locomotive is brakingparticularly
in the United States, where most
people are amply supplied with the goods and services needed to
lead a good life.
In the United States today, there are more private vehicles on the
road than people licensed to drive them, the Worldwatch report points
out. The average size of refrigerators in U.S. households increased
by 10 percent between 1972 and 2001, and the number per home rose
as well. New houses in the U.S. were 38 percent bigger in 2000 than
in 1975, despite having fewer people in each household on average.
As a result of these consumption patterns, the United States, with
just 4.5 percent of the worlds population, releases 25 percent
of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Yet increased consumption has not brought Americans happiness. About
a third of Americans report being very happy, the same
share as in 1957 when Americans were only half as wealthy. Americans
are also some of the most overworked people in the industrial world,
putting in the equivalent of nine more weeks on the job each year
than the average European.
This rising consumption in the U.S., other rich nations and many
developing ones is more than the planet can bear, reports State
of the World 2004. Forests, wetlands and other natural places are
shrinking to make way for people and their homes, farms, malls and
factories. Despite the existence of alternative sources, more than
90 percent of paper still comes from treeseating up about
one fifth of the total wood harvest worldwide. An estimated 75 percent
of global fish stocks are now fished at or beyond their sustainable
limit. And even though technology allows for greater fuel efficiency
than ever before, cars and other forms of transportation account
for nearly 30 percent of world energy use and 95 percent of global
At the same time, however, growing dissatisfaction with current
consumption trends has led consumer advocates, economists, policymakers
and environmentalists to develop creative options for meeting peoples
needs while dampening the environmental and social costs of mass
State of the World 2004 points to a range of opportunities that
are already available to governments, businesses and consumers to
curb and redirect consumption:
* Ecological Tax Reform:
By shifting taxes so that manufacturers have to pay for the harm
they do to the environment, and by introducing production standards
and other regulatory tools, governments can help minimize negative
impacts on natural resources.
* Take-back Laws:
Now being adopted by a growing number of governments around the
world, these laws require companies to take back products
at the end of their useful lives, and typically ban the landfilling
and incineration of products.
Industries can take shared
responsibility for their ecological impacts by finding ways to reduce
the amount of raw material needed to create products and by making
goods more durable and easy to repair and upgrade.
* Personal Responsibility:
Changes in consumption practices will also require millions of individual
decisions that start at the grass rootsabout everything from
our use of energy and water to our consumption of food.
It would be foolish to underestimate the challenge of checking
the consumption juggernaut, concludes Flavin. But as
the costs of unbridled appetites grow, the need for innovative responses
becomes clearer. In the long run, meeting basic human needs, improving
human health, and supporting a natural world that can sustain us
will require that we control consumption, rather than allow consumption
to control us.