Briefing: consumption and consumerism

Nations rich and poor need to reduce the impact of consumption on their natural resources, writes Maryann Bird, in the seventh of a series of guides to hot topics in a warming world.

Since China embarked on structural reforms two decades ago, its economy has boomed to become the second-largest in the world, averaging a 9.5% rate of growth and doubling in the last decade alone. By leaps and bounds, China is growing wealthier, and the evidence of that progress can be seen in everything from new construction, energy demand and more cars on the roads to greater travel and availability of the latest consumer gadgets.

While countries around the world are benefiting from low-cost Chinese manufacturing, China is also providing – through both production and imports — a new world of consumer goods and services for its own people, who increasingly have the money with which to acquire them. The growing culture of consumption and consumerism in traditionally frugal China has serious environmental impacts, however.

The Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2004 report, which focused on consumerism, noted that while Americans and western Europeans “have had a lock on unsustainable overconsumption for decades …developing countries are catching up rapidly, to the detriment of the environment, health and happiness.” According to the report: “One quarter of humanity—1.7 billion people worldwide—now belong to the ‘global consumer class,’ having adopting the diets, transportation systems and lifestyles that were once mostly limited to the rich nations of Europe, North America and Japan.” While China and other developing countries are home to growing numbers of such consumers (particularly in large urban centres), however, disparities remain “as 2.8 billion people on the planet struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion people lack reasonable access to safe drinking water.”

To survive, people must consume, acknowledges Worldwatch, “and the world’s poorest will need to increase their level of consumption if they are to lead lives of dignity and opportunity. But the world cannot continue on its current trajectory—the earth’s natural systems simply cannot support it. The economies of mass consumption that produced a world of abundance for many in the 20th century face an entirely different challenge in the 21st: to focus not on the indefinite accumulation of goods, but instead on a better quality of life for all, with minimal environmental harm.”

As China adds the weight of its consumer consumption to the global economy, Worldwatch’s more recent State of the World 2006 addresses a critical question: “Can the world’s ecosystems withstand the damage – the increase in carbon emissions, the loss of forests, the extinction of species – that are now in prospect? The answer is no, according to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.” The millennium assessment on ecosystems and human well-being — a United Nations report released by the World Health Organisation — determined that human activities in the last 50 years have changed the diversity of life on earth more than at any other time in history, and that such activities, if continued, will have life-threatening consequences.

China’s demands can be measured in many ways, in snapshots of its growing consumption as it strives toward a “first-world” lifestyle. With lighting, air conditioning, computers and other office equipment, “China’s nearly seven million public servants reportedly use almost 5% of the country’s annual electricity, which is enough to meet the demands of 780 million farmers,” the newspaper China Daily reports.

In a globalised world, goods and services previously out of reach in developing countries – things once considered to be luxuries – are now seen as necessities by many: televisions, mobile telephones and other electronic gadgetry, cars and airline travel. Internationally known brands of clothing and other products abound in China’s biggest cities (particularly Beijing and Shanghai), along with an increasing number of western restaurant and coffee-shop franchises. Consumerism has been termed the new “ism” in China, linking happiness to material goods and helping to drive the economy.

Hand in hand with consumerism is consumption, which in some cases means the using up of a resource. China’s goal of achieving a first-world lifestyle for its people will double the world’s human-resource use. According to author Jared Diamond in his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, China is the world’s leading producer and consumer of both coal and fertilizer, the second-largest producer and consumer of pesticides, the largest producer of steel, the second-largest producer of electricity and chemical textiles, and the third-largest consumer of oil. China’s auto production is now third in the world, behind the United States and Japan, adding to both energy use, air pollution and demand for oil.

China also ranks third in the world in timber consumption – wood for rural energy (firewood), for the paper and pulp industry and for the booming construction industry. (Diamond reports that “the projected decrease in Chinese household size to 2.7 people by the year 2015 will add 126 million new households — more than the total number of US households — even if China’s population size itself remains constant”.) Due to massive deforestation, followed (after severe floods in 1996 and 1998) by a ban on logging of its natural forests, China is on course to overtake Japan and become the world’s largest importer of tropical timber. Since the ban, writes Diamond, China’s wood imports have increased sixfold. Deforestation, he says, is being exported.

While the country’s demands for timber put massive pressure on the planet’s forestry resources, environmental campaigners say China is not alone in doing little or nothing to control the burgeoning trade in illegal wood imports. The conservation group WWF, in a 2005 report entitled China’s Wood Market, Trade and the Environment, says China is one of the major destinations for wood that may be illegally harvested or traded. More than half of China’s imported timber comes from countries such as Russia, Indonesia and Malaysia, all of which are struggling, says WWF, with over-harvesting, conversion of natural forests and illegal logging.

China’s increasing affluence has also produced more demand for meat and fish. In the northeast, freshwater swamps in the Sanjian plain have been converted to farmland. With a greater demand for meat comes a larger share of cereal production going toward animal feed. Per-capita fish consumption has increased five-fold in the past quarter-century, while China also exports fish, molluscs and other aquatic species. Chinese fishermen have cast their nets around the world – including in the lucrative waters off southwestern Africa in their (not always legal) search for fish. Overfishing occurs in China’s deep seas and along its coastline, and a growing movement – including Pacific Environment’s Save China’s Seas network – seeks to “help consumers focus on how their dietary choices affect our oceans’ bounty”.

The water quality in rivers and groundwater sources is poor, due to industrial and municipal waste-water discharges, as well as agricultural and aquacultural runoff of fertilizers, pesticides and manure. All that nutrient runoff has produced excessive concentrations of algae, a process known as eutrophication. “About 75% of Chinese lakes, and almost all coastal seas, are polluted,” writes Jared Diamond. “Red tides in China’s seas—blooms of plankton whose toxins are poisonous to fish and other ocean animals—have increased to nearly 100 per year, from only one in every five years in the 1960s.”

As if the devastating toll on China’s resources by all this production and consumption activity were not enough, the country also imports untreated rubbish — including electronic equipment and toxic waste — from the rest of the world for disposal. As Diamond puts it: “This represents direct transfer of pollution from the first world to China.”

China — like the US, Europe, Japan and India – is exceeding its “ecological footprint”, a resource management tool devised by environmental analyst Mathis Wackernagel to estimate the amount of “ecological space” occupied by humanity. “Footprint analysis,” explains Worldwatch’s 2006 report, “measures what an economy needs from nature: the inputs that fuel it and the wastes that emerge from it.” To determine whether a country is living within its ecological means, its footprint is compared with its number of global hectares of biologically productive space. “Where a nation’s footprint is larger than its biocapacity, its economy is consuming more forests, cropland and other resources than the country can supply and is overtaking the domestic environment’s capacity to absorb wastes.”

“The world’s largest and most industrialised economies,” says Worldwatch, “are essentially consuming their ecological capital by cutting forests faster than they can regenerate, pumping groundwater faster than it is recharged, and filling the atmosphere with carbon that cannot be safely absorbed.” On a per-person basis, the inequality of claims on biocapacity is clear. The world average footprint is 2.3 global hectares per person. The average Chinese person’s is 1.6, the average European’s is 4.7, and the average American’s is 9.7.

As China (and India) continue to develop rapidly, the global footprint grows. Worldwatch says that “if by 2030 China and India alone were to achieve a per-capita footprint equivalent to that of Japan today, together they would require a full planet Earth to meet their needs.”

“China will, of course, not tolerate being told not to aspire to first world levels,” writes Diamond in Collapse. “But the world cannot sustain China and other third-world countries and current first-world countries all operating at first-world levels.”

NEXT: Transport

The Author: Maryann Bird is a London-based journalist

(photo by Shanghai Streets)