The World Is Richer, Fatter, And Not Much Happier

Consumer appetite has eroded the quality of life for rich and poor, reports 'State of the World 2004'

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: Richer , Fatter and not much Happier.'

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 . Classified as those who use televisions, telephones, and the Internet, along with the culture and ideals these products transmit, almost half of this consumer class now lives in developing countries, which also have the greatest potential to expand the ranks of consumers.

"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 mobilise 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% of the world's people living in North America and Western Europe account for 60% of this consumption, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa account for only 3.2%.

The problem is the glaring contrasts

The report observes that sharp differences exist in the world today - while the consumer class thrives, there are great disparities in consumption patterns and the basic needs of many who do not belong to this class remain unmet.

The production factor

More effective production procedures during the last century have also been responsible for driving up consumption, the report notes.

The health costs of increased consumption

As much as lack of adequate resources affects the world's poor, unchecked consumerism takes its toll on those who consume more as well, says the report, suggesting that having more is just as dangerous as not having enough. For instance:

Icecream vs immunisation

A telling picture of the skewed nature of global spending patterns emerges in the section of 'SOWR 2004' that compares personal spending on luxury items with the amounts needed to meet pressing global social or economic goals.

For instance, providing adequate food, clean water, and basic education for the world's poorest would cost less than the amount people spend annually on makeup, ice cream, and pet food.

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 US households increased by 10% between 1972 and 2001, and the number per home rose as well. New houses in the US were 38% bigger in 2000 than in 1975, despite having fewer people in each household on average.

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.

Curbing consumption

This rising consumption in the US , 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% of paper still comes from trees-eating up about one-fifth of the total wood harvest worldwide. An estimated 75% 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% of world energy use and 95% 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:

"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."

(InfoChange News & Features, January 2004)