We hear much about China's booming economy. Not surprisingly, this has generated a sizeable middle class. At least 400 million Chinese have lifted themselves out of poverty to enjoy a measure of affluence. So too with India, though on a smaller scale with 240 million "new consumers." There are large-ish numbers of such people in Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, and Russia—in fact, 17 developing and three transition countries feature 1.4 billion people with a collective purchasing power far greater than that of the United States. Supposing there are no more financial meltdowns of late 1990s' type, they are likely to have increased their numbers by half and doubled their purchasing power during this decade. We are witnessing the biggest consumption boom in history.
The new consumers command sufficient income to buy household appliances of many sorts, notably fridges and freezers, washing machines and air conditioners, plus television sets and videos/DVD players—all the usual items that mark the "newly arrived”. They are also shifting to a diet strongly based on meat, which they enjoy every day at least instead of once a week at most. Still more importantly, they are buying cars in large numbers.
These three consumption activities have sizeable environmental impacts. First, the household appliances are almost always run off electricity generated by fossil fuels—with all that implies for build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere, thus bringing on climate change. Secondly, meat is increasingly raised in major measure on grain, thus putting pressure on limited irrigation water and international grain supplies. Several countries import large amounts of grain for the primary purpose of feeding livestock rather than people, even though most of those countries feature many millions of malnourished people. Second, the new consumers possess one fifth of the global car fleet, a proportion that is rising rapidly. At least one seventh of CO2 emissions worldwide comes from passenger cars—so to this extent the entire world community has an interest in all those new cars in new consumer countries (just as the new consumer countries have an interest in the far larger numbers of cars in developed countries). Fortunately many new consumers can, if they feel inclined, purchase those cars that are more sparing in their CO2 emissions, notably the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight.
There are other downside repercussions of the burgeoning "car culture". In India there are an estimated five million premature deaths each year because of air pollution, up to 70% of which is due to motor vehicles. Some 40 million people suffer the effects of asthma. Fortunately there have been major efforts to improve air quality in New Delhi, as too in Beijing and Mexico City.
Bottom line: can we persuade the new consumers to enjoy their high-flying lifestyles in sustainable fashion? A first step in that direction is to recognize that consumption patterns will inevitably change in the future, if only by force of environmental circumstance which is becoming ever more forceful. Secondly, we must try to modify consumption patterns right around the world (the new consumers are unlikely to alter their consumption until the rich-world consumers take solid steps to adapt their own consumption). Many observers believe that such patterns are set in concrete, but these may prove to be rather more malleable. For example, during a recent 20-year period, some 55 million Americans gave up smoking—a social earthquake, virtually overnight.
Most important of all is the need to establish sustainable consumption as a norm. This will not only foster far more efficient use of materials and energy. It will also seek to achieve an acceptable quality of life for all in perpetuity, and exemplify it throughout our lifestyles. How, for instance, can we attain a better balance between work and leisure, as between income and consumption? How can we prevent yesterday's luxuries from becoming today's necessities and tomorrow's relicts? How can we make fashion sustainable and sustainability fashionable? However hard it will be to live with the profound changes required, it will not be nearly so hard as to live in a world profoundly impoverished by the environmental injuries of current consumption.
- Myers, N. and J. Kent. 2004. "New Consumers: The Influence of Affluence on the Environment", Island Press, Washington DC.
- Myers, N. and J. Kent, eds. 2005. “The New Gaia Atlas of Planet Management”, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. ISBN: 0520238796