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green@work : Magazine : Between Blue & Yellow : Jan/Feb 2004

Between Blue and Yellow
The Costs of Consumption

by Katie Sosnowchik


I have read throughout the years a great many surveys and their accompanying statistics that have made an overwhelming impression. And yet I found some of the facts and figures published in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2004 report unusually staggering. The report estimates that private consumption expenditures—the amount spent on goods and services at the household level—have increased fourfold since 1960, topping more than $20 trillion in 2000. Additionally, the 12 percent of the world’s people living in North America and Western Europe account for 60 percent of this consumption.

Contrast these numbers with the fact that as many as 2.8 billion people struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, or that more than one billion people lack reasonable access to safe drinking water.

What gave me the most pause, though, was the perspective offered in the chart below, which compared the expenditures for discretionary items such as ice cream, makeup and pet food—and what those finances could do to solve many of the world’s most pressing humanitarian issues.

I am not advocating that we stop wearing makeup or eating ice cream or feeding our pets. Consumption is not wholly a bad thing: it stimulates economies, provides for basic needs and creates jobs. Perhaps, though, we should think long and hard about all those things we “can’t live without.” The old adage, “money can’t buy happiness,” rings true for a reason: about a third of Americans report being “very happy,” the same share as in 1957 when Americans were only half as wealthy.

What’s critical to remember is that this rising consumption not only fails to bring us more happiness, it also is more than the planet can bear, says 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. Ninety percent of paper still comes from trees—eating 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 modern technology allows for greater fuel efficiency, cars and other forms of transportation account for nearly 95 percent of global oil consumption.

“It would be foolish to underestimate the challenge of checking the consumption juggernaut,” concludes Worldwatch Institute president Christopher 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 allowing consumption to control us.”

Which scenario prevails is up to us.

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