We the richest fifth of the world's population already consume more than our fair share of the world's resources.
CONSUMERISM is a social and economic creed that encourages us to aspire to even more than that share, regardless of the consequences.
20% of the world's population consumes over 70% of its material resources, and own's over 80% of its wealth although this global elite includes people in almost every country, it is mainly concentrated in the Westernised, consumerist nations: the US. Canada, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Japan.
It is important to bear in mind that this elite does not simply consist of the super-rich strata with incomes of above half a Million pounds a year. It includes the majority of the citizens of these countries. As well as the isolated pockets of rich elites from traditionally poor nations such as India Ecuador Kenya etc.: in other words, the world's consumer class. This same 20% does not exclusively grow, supply or create all of these resources - they are the product of the whole world's labour: and although we may receive the benefits of using these resources, and have control over their distribution, they are not necessarily ours to consume in the first place. In fact, in order for the elite to live at the standard it does, the majority have to go without... and this is one of the major (if not the major) causes of world poverty, albeit one that is largely ignored, unknown or denied.
This blunt fact is in sharp contrast to our traditional western explanation of why the 'Third' World is so poor. For instance, we are very accustomed to the belief that there is a global shortage of food. This is simply not true. The world already produces enough grain alone to supply every single individual with over 2,500 calories per day: this figure does not even include fruit, groundnuts or root vegetables. In this sense the world cannot in any meaningful sense be said to be overpopulated. Asia, Africa, Latin America, Central America and Pacific Rim islands are often referred to as having too high a population. But few of the countries in these regions has a significantly higher population density than Britain, Japan, Germany or the Netherlands, where only a tiny percentage of the population is undernourished. The majority of impoverished countries have population densities far below these examples. Even Ethiopia, Mozambique and Bangladesh, countries seen as almost synonymous with overpopulation and scarcity, have the agricultural resources to feed their people.
What causes global hunger is not a shortage of resources, but the unequal distribution of those resources in favour of the rich. No solution to world poverty can ignore this basic fact: putting an end to it will inevitably involve a fairer distribution of the world's food, resources and wealth. This is not compatible with the consumerist creed of ever-increasing consumption.
Supporters of consumerist culture offer economic growth as a solution to world poverty. They propose that impoverished nations and individuals can eventually attain a standard of living similar to our own through the 'trickle down' of wealth creation. Whether you believe that this 'leakage' of wealth will take place or not, the argument is still fundamentally flawed because it ignores some very simple facts...
It is the wealthy of the world who are responsible for polluting it. Manufacturing the quantities of goods that the consumerist lifestyle demands, transporting these goods, dispensing of their packaging and eventually the goods themselves, creates these high levels of environmentally destructive substances.
The United States, which has 6% of the world's population, uses 30% of the world's energy supply. 20% of the worlds population, (in other words its wealthy consumer class), is responsible for over 50% of its 'greenhouse effect' atmospheric pollutants, 90% of its ozone-depleting CFC gases, 96% of its radioactive waste... and so on.
No serious commentator environmental issues denies that the present levels of world pollution and rates of environmental degradation are a severe problem, and will need to be substantially curbed if we are to avoid irreversible damage to the eco-system .
A lot of attention (and even more lip-service) is being paid to the problem, and attempts to find more environmentally friendly and sustainable methods of industrial and economic activity are high on the agenda of many institutions, such as pressure groups and industry.
But almost all these solutions assume that the industrial and economic activities of the impoverished 80% of the world's population will remain at a low, and therefore less environmentally- damaging level. In doing this, they ignore the fact that IF the majority of the world's citizens are also to achieve a consumerist standard of living, (as would be their right) then all of the present levels of global pollution and waste are going to more than quadruple. If 20% of the world's population produce the current degree of harmful effects, then 100% of the world's population doing the same will produce 5 times this damage 5 x 20 is 5 x 20, no matter what your political or economic beliefs may be.
Through the use of technological innovation and devices to curb pollution levels (eg catalytic converters, desulphurisation equipment, greater fuel efficiency and more efficient recycling) it may be possible to preserve and sustain a consumerist lifestyle for the few without endangering the environment of the many. But no amount of technology would be capable of bringing environmental damage under control if all of the world's citizens were to achieve a standard of living even remotely comparable to that of the consumer class.
The simple example of the car illustrates this point. Less than an eighth of the world's adult population own a car. This many cars (450 million vehicles) is already responsible for 13% of the global carbon emissions from the burning off fossil fuels, and a larger share of the production of acid rain. If every adult or family in the world owned a car, these emission levels would be beyond any technological solution. Some future fuel efficiency technology might possibly double or treble how far a car can travel on a gallon of fuel, but this would not be enough to bring the emission levels within safe limits. A fuel efficiency increase of twenty times the present rate would be needed to cope with a world wide car density similar to our own, and this is only to keep Pollution levels at the same rate as they are now, let alone reducing them . And a twenty- fold increase in petrol efficiency is beyond the laws of thermodynamics. Since the same mathematics applies to almost all other pollution producing consumer goods or practices, we are in effect faced with a simple choice.
A: We continue to have a high standard of living and deny the rest of the rest of the world the opportunity to do the same. We then use green technology to bring the pollution we produce down to a level the biosphere can absorb without sustaining long-term damage,
or B: We 'allow' the majority to develop, and lower our standard of living, with every individual then living a lifestyle that produces no more than their 'share' of a sustainable global rate of pollution.
Option B is not compatible with our consumer culture, as long as that culture continues to tell us, 'More is always better.'