State of the World Report: Rising Consumption Unsustainable

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, January 8, 2004 (ENS) - More than 25 percent of individuals worldwide now live a lifestyle once limited to rich nations, according to Worldwatch Institute. Rising consumption has helped more of the world meet basic needs, the U.S. research group says, but this growing consumer class is gobbling the world's resources at an unsustainable rate and is putting added pressure on humanity's poorest individuals.

"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," said Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin.

In its "State of the World 2004" report, Worldwatch says some 1.7 billion individuals have adopted 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.

The amount spent on goods and services at the household level has increased fourfold since 1960 and topped more than $20 trillion in 2000.

The report finds that North America and Western Europe - representing 12 percent of the world's population - account for 60 percent of this consumption. By contrast, the one third of humanity who live in South Asia and sub Saharan Africa account for only 3.2 percent of this consumption. poorkids

Some 815 million people worldwide are chronically hungry. (Photo by F. Mattioli, courtesy U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization)
The report's authors write that 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

For example, the United States, long the world's consumption giant, has more private vehicles on the road than people licensed to drive them.

Worldwatch notes that new houses in the U.S. were 38 percent bigger in 2000 than in 1975, despite having fewer people in each household on average.

But this consumption trend is having adverse effects, Flavin says, even for those at the top of the spending pyramid. The world's rich are getting richer, fatter, but not much happier, according to the report.

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," Flavin says.

"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," according to the Worldwatch President.

But that challenge is a daunting one - the report details that the ever increasing consumption by the world's rich is now complemented by rapidly rising consumption in the developing world.

"Nearly half of all global consumers now live in the developing world," said Lisa Mastny, a project director of "State of the World 2004." "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."

In China alone, 240 million people have joined the ranks of consumers - a number that will soon surpass that in the United States.

Despite its gloomy prognosis, the report stresses that consumption is not in itself a bad thing.

"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," said Worldwatch's Brian Halweil. traffic

The sheer number of vehicles in the United States is a sign of unsustainable consumption, Worldwatch says. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy
"And in China, the rush to meet surging consumer demand is stimulating the economy, creating jobs, and attracting foreign investment," added Halweil, a project director of "State of the World 2004."

But the impact rising consumption is having on the planet's forests, wetlands and other natural resources has the world on an unsustainable course, Worldwatch reports, even though there are many more sustainable paths available.

The report notes that despite the existence of alternative sources, more than 90 percent of paper still comes from trees - this paper demand is eating up some one fifth of the total wood harvest worldwide.

Although 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.

In addition, Worldwatch says an estimated 75 percent of global fish stocks are now fished at or beyond their sustainable limit.

"It would be foolish to underestimate the challenge of checking the consumption juggernaut," Flavin said. "But as the costs of unbridled appetites grow, the need for innovative responses becomes clearer."

The organization recommends that governments begin shift taxes so that manufacturers have to pay for the harm they do to the environment and introduce production standards and other regulatory tools to minimize negative impacts on natural resources.

Worldwatch says industries - and individuals - must take shared responsibility for the ecological impacts of consumption patterns and choices.

"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," Flavin said.