Around 1.7 billion people worldwide—more than a quarter of humanity—have 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 consumers—a 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 world's poor to meet their basic needs."
"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. 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 expenditures—the amount spent on goods and services at the household level—have increased fourfold since 1960, topping more than $20 trillion in 2000, reports State of the World 2004. The 12 percent of the world's 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 world's 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 foreign investment."
There is little evidence that the consumption locomotive is braking—particularly 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 world's 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 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 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 oil consumption.
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 people's needs while dampening the environmental and social costs of mass consumption.
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.
* DURABILITY. 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 grassroots—about 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."