Americans and Western Europeans have had a lock on unsustainable over-consumption for decades. But now developing countries are catching up rapidly, to the detriment of the environment, health, and happiness, according to the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington D.C.-based research organization focuses this year on consumerism run amuck.
Approximately 1.7 billion people worldwide now belong to the “consumer class”—the group of people characterized by diets of highly processed food, desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods.
Today nearly half of global consumers reside in developing countries, including 240 million in China and 120 million in India—markets with the most potential for expansion.
“Rising consumption has helped meet basic needs and create jobs,” Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute said in a statement to the press. “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.”
The report addresses the devastating toll on the Earth’s water supplies, natural resources, and ecosystems exacted by a plethora of disposable cameras, plastic garbage bags, and other cheaply made goods with built-in product-obsolescence, and cheaply made manufactured goods that lead to a “throw away” mentality.
“Most of the environmental issues we see today can be linked to consumption,” said Gary Gardner, director of research for Worldwatch. “As just one small example, there was a story in the newspaper just the other day saying that 37 percent of species could become extinct due to climate change, which is very directly related to consumption.”
And yet another disturbing trend according to the reports from World Bank is that the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption, while the poorest 5% just 1.5%. This stark inequality in consumption is widening the distance between the have’s and have-nots. while the one becomes exploiters and others exploited or shall we call big munchers and small nibblers.
From Luxuries to Necessities ∞
Globalization is a driving factor in making goods and services previously out of reach in developing countries much more available. Items that at one point in time were considered luxuries—televisions, cell phones, computers, air conditioning—are now viewed as necessities.
China provides a snapshot of changing realities. For years, the streets of China’s major cities were characterized by a virtual sea of people on bicycles, and 25 years ago there were barely any private cars in China. By 2000, 5 million cars moved people and goods; the number is expected to reach 24 million by the end of next year.
In the United States, there are more cars on the road than licensed drivers. Increased reliance on automobiles means more pollution, more traffic, more use of fossil fuels. Cars and other forms of transportation account for nearly 30 percent of world energy use and 95 percent of global oil consumption.
Changing diet, with a growing emphasis on meat, illustrates the environmental and societal toll exacted by unbridled consumption. To provide enough beef, chicken, and pork to meet the demand, the livestock industry has moved to factory farming. Producing eight ounces of beef requires 6,600 gallons (25,000 litres) of water; 95 percent of world soybean crops are consumed by farm animals, and 16 percent of the world’s methane, a destructive greenhouse gas, is produced by belching, flatulent livestock. The enormous quantities of manure produced at factory farms become toxic waste rather than fertilizer, and runoff threatens nearby streams, bays, and estuaries.
Chickens at a typical farm are kept in cages with about nine square inches (about 60 square centimetres) of space per bird. To force them to lay more eggs, they are often starved. Chickens slaughtered for meat are first fattened up with hormones, sometimes to the point where their legs can no longer support their weight. Crowded conditions can lead to the rapid spread of disease among the animals. To prevent this, antibiotics are included in their feed. The World Health Organization reports that the widespread use of these drugs in the livestock industry is helping breed antibiotic-resistant microbes, complicating the treatment of disease in both animals and people.
The World Bank has also rethought its policy of funding livestock factory farming. In 2001, a World Bank report concluded: “there is a significant danger that the poor are being crowded out, the environment eroded, and global food safety and security threatened.”
Not Much Happier ∞
The increase in prosperity is not making humans happier or healthier, according to several studies. Findings from a survey of life satisfaction in more than 65 countries indicate that income and happiness tend to track well until about $13,000 of annual income per person (in 1995 dollars). After that, additional income appears to produce only modest increments in self-reported happiness.
Increased consumerism evidently comes at a steep price. People are incurring debt and working longer hours to pay for the high-consumption lifestyle, consequently spending less time with family, friends, and community organizations. “Excess consumption can be counterproductive,” said Gardner. “The irony is that lower levels of consumption can actually cure some of these problems.”
Diets of highly processed food and the sedentary lifestyle that goes with heavy reliance on automobiles have led to a worldwide epidemic of obesity. In the United States, an estimated 65 percent of adults are overweight or obese, and the country has the highest rate of obesity among teenagers in the world. Soaring rates of heart disease and diabetes, surging health care costs, and a lower quality of day-to-day life are the result.
Some aspects of rampant consumerism have resulted in startling anomalies. Worldwatch reports that worldwide annual expenditures for cosmetics total U.S. $18 billion; the estimate for annual expenditures required to eliminate hunger and malnutrition is $19 billion. Expenditures on pet food in the United States and Europe total $17 billion a year; the estimated cost of immunizing every child, providing clean drinking water for all, and achieving universal literacy is $16.3 billion.
There is, of course, no easy solution to the problem. But first and foremost we need to reorient our way of thinking, says Gardner.”The goal is to focus not so much on sacrifice, but on how to provide a higher quality of life using the lowest amount of raw materials,” he said. “We need to change the way we produce goods and the way we consume them.”
How consumerism affects society and the Environment ∞
Consumerism is economically manifested in the chronic purchasing of new goods and services, with little attention to their true need, durability, product origin or the environmental consequences of manufacture and disposal. Consumerism is driven by huge sums spent on advertising designed to create both a desire to follow trends and the resultant personal self-reward system based on acquisition. Materialism is one of the end results of consumerism.
Consumerism interferes with the workings of society by replacing the normal common-sense desire for an adequate supply of life’s necessities, community life, a stable family and healthy relationships with an artificial ongoing and insatiable quest for things and the money to buy them with little regard for the true utility of what is bought. An intended consequence of this, promoted by those who profit from consumerism, is to accelerate the discarding of the old, either because of lack of durability or a change in fashion.
Landfills swell with cheap discarded products that fail early and cannot be repaired. Products are made psychologically obsolete long before they actually wear out. A generation is growing up without knowing what quality goods are. Friendship, family ties and personal autonomy are only promoted as a vehicle for gift giving and the rationale for the selection of communication services and personal acquisition. Everything becomes mediated through the spending of money on goods and services.
It is an often stated catechism that the economy would improve if people just bought more things, bought more cars and spent more money. Financial resources better spent on Social Capital such as education, nutrition, housing etc. are spent on products of dubious value and little social return. In addition, the purchaser is robbed by the high price of new things, the cost of the credit to buy them, and the less obvious expenses such as, in the case of automobiles, increased registration, insurance, repair and maintenance costs.
We shouldn’t allow this or anything like this happens. Things may be starting to turn around in our favour. But it takes work and time and attention to details and a willingness to try new things for our own and our the next generation’s benefit. There are serious changes ahead. We can control some of these for our benefit or we can just react to them after they have happened.
Simply stated, there’s a lot of money being made and a lot of power being gathered by the people that promote consumerism. You pay for it in gradually limited economic mobility, pollution, threats to your health and a declining standard of living, as measured by the things that really matter.
In addition to the everyday things that you can do, there are concepts that need to be discussed and not just in a trite way. The mantra “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” is pregnant with meaning, and reflects worthwhile goals, but it hardly contains solutions to the real integral problems of the world.
Vedic Observer ∞
Malls have replaced parks, temples and community gatherings for many who no longer even take the trouble to meet their neighbours or care to know their names. People move frequently as though neighbourhoods and cities were products to be tried out like brands of deodorant. Consumerism sets each person against themselves in an endless quest for the attainment of material things or the imaginary world conjured up and made possible by things yet to be purchased.
Indian ethos has always stood for simple living and high thinking. Lord Krishna recommends in BG 4.22 how one should not endeavour more than required rather focus his endeavours in the side in the pursuit of the self. So does Isoupanishad which reiterates the need for being contended. There are numerous examples of extravagance in Puranas but all of them have a strong undercurrent of renunciation. Take for example the story of Saubhari Muni who created an opulent city filled with human pleasurables and yet he renounced it once and for all. Sage Vasishta could create an opulent palace filled with heavenly pleasures by the dint of his spiritual prowess but he himself lived in his hermitage.
The world will have sustainable and balanced progress only if we recognize that it is not an object of exploitation rather a wonderful boon bestowed by the creator in our care. Then sense will prevail. To conclude in the words of Mahatma Gandhi “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”.