Energy and economic activity are linked. That’s one of the big reasons that humans find it so difficult to share energy resources and the obligations that come with them. It’s unlikely that citizens of the rich world will willingly part with their high standards of living. It’s even less likely that the world’s poor will cease the push to increase their own.

- Ozzie Zehner, Author of Green Illusions

A History of Consumption

There is an old adage; be careful what you wish for – it just might come true. Today, our global economic system is the result of the wishes of our political leaders just a generation earlier.

The story begins with the stock market collapse of 1929, itself a process engineered by greed. The crash triggered the Great Depression that engulfed the world in terrible suffering. What was humanities best answer to eliminate this terrible suffering? One brilliant attempt came from the mayor of the small Austrian town of Worgl . The good mayor could not see how, with so much natural and human resources, there could be so much suffering. He saw through the artificiality of scarcity engineered into the economic system, especially the dyfunctionality and control designed into the currency system. Those who controlled the currency system and made it’s availability scarce controlled people slavishly through a fear-based dependency.

The mayor of Worgl set about to create his own local currency and achieved astounding local economic success in a very short time. His story was one of the few bright lights in the darkness that had blanketed the world. His success began to attract national attention and as 200 other communities convened to discuss Worgl’s success with the intention of replicating it, their effort was thrwarted by the Central Bank of Austria who, feeling threatened by the successful local currency banned it.

Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…. we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.

- Victor Lebow, Retail Analyst

This recognition of the power of the local economy and a civilized opportunity to bring people out of economic hardship was rejected by the political elite. Instead, they chose to replace it by the most primitive and barbaric means of regaining economic success – through killing and destruction. World War II ultimately became the favored catalyst for global economic recovery.

In the United States, Pearl Harbor caused the government to invoke an emergency act to harness the enormous US  resource base, productivity, energy, and technology for the war effort, and soon its economy caught on fire. America, then the global leader in automobile manufacturing, converted its automobile plants overnight to the massive task of manufacturing enormous quantities of war machines and explosives. When war victory became imminent, the president’s council of economic advisors was challenged to find a way to convert a prosperous war economy into a prosperous peacetime one. It was shortly after the end of the war when retailing analyst Victor Lebow hit upon the devious solution of basing the economy upon manufactured consumption.

President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors chairman stated: “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” Therefore, the vehicle for economic recovery was not to invest in better health care, education, housing, transportation, recreation, poverty eradication, but providing more stuff to consumers!

The Design of a Consumer Driven Economy

The purchase of a new product, especially a ‘big ticket’ item such as a car or computer, typically produces an immediate surge of pleasure and achievement and often confers status and recognition upon the owner. Yet as the novelty wears off, the emptiness threatens to return. The standard consumer solution is to focus on the next promising purchase.

- Allen Kanner and Mary Gomes, authors The All-Consuming Self

A consumer-driven society is an inherently unsustainable one; that is, it is unsustainable BY DESIGN. When goods are well-made and durable, markets rapidly become saturated so:

Fact 1: A saturated market = end of sales

Therefore, to keep manufacturers continually making a profit, it is required to create an endless market.

Fact 2: An endless market is guaranteed by introducing rapid obsolescence

With built-in disposability, where an article is used once and thrown away, the market will never be saturated. Our wish has been fulfilled; our current economic system is based upon artificially manufactured needs and we are stuck in the worst nightmare we could imagine. We have made an economy dangerously dependent on unnecessary consumption.  Within this artificial paradigm, the rich  are spellbound and want with strong self-interest to maintain their position and keep their spoils while the poor, equally enticed cannot stop striving towards the same wrong goals.  Our own ignorance therefore places us squarely within the grips of an unsustainable system, a most absurd model which keeps people employed in the service of destroying the planet.

Creating a Market

Having more and newer things each year has become not just something we want but something we need. The idea of more, ever-increasing wealth, has become the center of our identity and our security, and we are caught up by it as the addict is by his drugs.

- Paul Wachtel , author The Poverty of Affluence

Marketers know that to sustain today’s businesses, they must continually turn the next generation of children into instant gratification addicts. What is one child worth to a marketer? One  lifelong customer who lives life spending the way you would like can be worth anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars. The key to making trillions is to condition an entire nation of people to react to every inconvenience,  passing desire or fear through consumer therapy. Large transnational companies know this well and purchasing broadcasters, politicians and trendsetting media figures is their secret success formula. These strategies we encounter are so insidious because of how normal they’ve become. Nobody questions them at all and yet everyone is deeply affected by them. They creep into our life not only explicitly, in magazines and commercials, to the car adverts we hear while using a toilet to a piece of consumer electronic that stops working a month after the expiry of its warranty but also in more sublte ways -in the way other people around us become brand champions — even people we love.

Billion dollar budgets encourage our children, from virtually every angle, to become or remain unhealthy and unfulfilled, because then we will buy more. They encourage poor  health, general complacency, and an unconscious reflex for parting with our money:

Marketers are involved in a constant war, a subtle manipulation of the public to secretly craft the perfect consumer and to manufacture consent. What is the profile of the perfect consumer?

  • workaholic
  • work for money, but are unhappy and dissatisfied with our job
  • own a TV and absorb many hours of advertising every night, in their own homes
  • lead a sedentary lifestyle, are tired and unhealthy
  • respond to boredom, dissatisfaction, or anxiety by buying and consuming
  • very concerned with appearances
  • like to own stuff
  • not a deep thinker, nor highly educated
  • are easily distracted by novelty and gossip
  • feel inadequate
  • believe waste is normal and don’t think about where it goes after the garbage can

How do parents defend against the billions that marketers pour into their subversive psychological manipulation campaign? It takes effort to provide a balanced picture to our children amidst the rapid-fire media barrage of transnational conglomerates. What is at stake cannot be any higher. If the trillion dollar campaigns are successful, they will have ensured a new generation of consumers to keep their businesses alive.

How did we get ourselves into this mess? Why do we keep buying things that, essentially, we do not need? The problem is far deeper than one would suspect and actually points to what Buddhist scholar and environmentalist David Loy calls a deep sense of lack. Consumerism is the outward expression of a lack of meaning in modern lives. The global disconnect caused by an technocracy that separates human beings from the environment is both unnatural and ultimately, destructive. From this perspective, the impending perfect storm of crisis can be seen as a correction factor, albeit an extremely painful one.

For an entertaining look at our addiction to stuff and it’s impact on our society, go to the Story of Stuff page.

Consumerism vs Overpopulation

By almost any measure, a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution.
In fact, the biggest source of planetary-boundary stress today is excessive resource consumption by roughly the wealthiest 10 per cent of the world’s population, and the production patterns of the companies producing the goods and services that they buy:

  • Carbon: Around 50 per cent of global carbon emissions are generated by just 11 percent of people;
  • Income: 57 per cent of global income is in the hands of just 10 per cent of people;
  • Nitrogen: 33 per cent of the world’s sustainable nitrogen budget is used to produce meat for people in the EU – just 7 per cent of the world’s population

While both Consumption and Overpopulation contribute to resource depletion and many of the other major global problems, a close look will help to dispell myth from reality. A recent article by  environmental writer Fred Pearce sheds light on the issue. In particular, after doing research, Pearce researches the research literature and comes to the conclusion that consumption in first world countries far outweighs population impact from developing countries. In effect, the “overconsumers” arguments don’t hold water against what they call the “overbreeeders”.

it strikes me as the height of hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world’s environmental footprint because generations of poor people not yet born might one day get to be as rich and destructive as us. Overpopulation is not driving environmental destruction at the global level; overconsumption is. Every time we talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying that simple fact.

- Fred Pearce, Ecology Writer

Many armchair environmentalists claim that overpopulation is the main problem that is ruining the environment. It sounds like a open and shut case… more people take more resources and cause more pollution, driving the planet closer to the breaking point. This is a very convenient argument used over and over again…especially by “over-consumers” in developed countries who often blame the state of the planet on “over-breeders” in developing countries. But is there any scientific evidence supporting these claims? Writer Fred Pearce wrote a insightful article in Environment 360 called Consumption Dwarfs Population as Main Environment Threat.

  • The world’s population quadrupled to six billion people during the 20th century
  • Population is still rising and may reach 10 billion by 2050
  • For a significant part of this century, rising per-capita incomes have been higher than the increasing population growth

It is well known that a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution. CO2 emissions is a measure of our impact on climate and also an indicator of fossil fuel consumption. Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environment Institute, calculated

  • The world’s richest half-billion people  (7% according to Pearce, 11% according to Raworth) are responsible for 50% of the world’s consumption
  • The poorest 50 percent are responsible for just (7%, Pearce, 11% Raworth) of Carbon emissions


Figure 1: Consumer Statistics for First World Consumers (Browse more infographics.)
Figure 1: Ecological Footprint Spectrum ( Average Land in Hectares to Support Average Citizen’s Lifestyle)
For more on Ecological Footprint, go here
Pearce writes:
“Virtually all of the extra 2 billion or so people expected on this planet in the coming 40 years will be in the poor half of the world. They will raise the population of the poor world from approaching 3.5 billion to about 5.5 billion, making them the poor two-thirds.Sounds nasty, but based on Pacala’s calculations — and if we assume for the purposes of the argument that per-capita emissions in every country stay roughly the same as today — those extra two billion people would raise the share of emissions contributed by the poor world from 7 percent to 11 percent.Look at it another way. Just five countries are likely to produce most of the world’s population growth in the coming decades: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians, or 250 Ethiopians.”

For comparison of how extreme the differences are, Pearce brings up two points:

  1. A woman in rural Ethiopia can have ten children and her family will still do less damage, and consume fewer resources, than the family of the average soccer mom in Minnesota or Munich. In the unlikely event that her ten children live to adulthood and have ten children of their own, the entire clan of more than a hundred will still be emitting less carbon dioxide than you or I.
  2. Wherever most kids survive to adulthood, women stop having so many. That is the main reason why the number of children born to an average woman around the world has been in decline for half a century now. After peaking at between 5 and 6 per woman, it is now down to 2.6.

Finally, Pearce ends his article by talking about famous environmental scientist Garret Hardin and his “lifeboat ethics”.

In the modern, resource-constrained world, he said, “each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in.” But there were, he said, not enough places to go around. If any were let on board, there would be chaos and all would drown. The people in the lifeboat had a duty to their species to be selfish – to keep the poor out.

Environmentalism is not contrary to Social Development

In light of environmental demands to spread equity of the rich to the poor and to stop polluting the environment, Right Wing and Libertarian organizations have responded disingenuously by saying that if they do so, it will harm social development of the poor. A Feb 2012 Oxfam paper that posed the question about whether enviromentalism was in conflict with social development for the poor concluded that it was not. Social development for the poor did not aggrevate the Planetary Boundaries established in 2009. Some of it’s conclusions were.

  • Providing enough food for the 13% of the world’s people who suffer from hunger means raising world supplies by just 1%.
  • Providing electricity to the 19% of people who currently have none would raise global carbon emissions by just 1%
  • Bringing everyone above the global absolute poverty line ($1.25 a day) would need just 0.2% of global income

The report further points out:

  • half the world’s carbon emissions are produced by just 11% of its people
  • 50% of the world’s people produce just 11% of its emissions
  • Animal feed used in the EU alone, which accounts for just 7% of the world’s people, uses up 33% of the planet’s sustainable nitrogen budget
  • Excessive resource use by the world’s richest 10% of consumers crowds out much-needed resource use by billions of other people
  • It is not the needs of the poor that threaten the biosphere, but the demands of the rich
  • crossing any of the nine planetary boundaries can severely undermine human development, first and foremost for women and men living in poverty
  • social justice is impossible without far greater global equity in the use of natural resources, with the greatest reductions coming from the world’s richest consumers

Politically, the easy way to tackle poverty is to try to raise the living standards of the poor while doing nothing to curb the consumption of the rich. This is the strategy almost all governments follow. However, it is a formula for environmental disaster, which only spreads poverty and deprivation.