Nick Rosen | |
Erik Assadourian (right) - conspicuous consumption
Erik Assadourian (right) - conspicuous consumption

For years we have been taught to measure the quality of our lives according to how much we can consume – bigger house, grander cars, more food, till we are so fat we can barely walk – drugs, till we cannot think straight — alcohol, gold, diamonds, travel – these are the status symbols that our society adores — rather than love, wisdom, loyalty or honesty.

The average American consumes more than his or her weight in products each day, according to a new report (State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability) published by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC.

The importance of the new study is in its argument that we as individuals should not blame ourselves for these excesses as we lounge over our (imported) coffee on some hotel patio.  Business and government are the cause of the societal greed, and we need them to provide the solution.

“Today, the average European uses 43 kilograms of resources daily, and the average American uses 88 kilograms,” says the report.

“All in all, the world extracts the equivalent of 112 Empire State Buildings from the earth every single day says the report which concludes that the global cult of excess consumption and greed could wipe out any gains from government action on climate change or a shift to a clean energy economy.”

It doesn’t say so directly, but the study makes clear that the American Dream is diametrically opposed to sustainability and the current state sanctioned/multilateral efforts to regulate global warming.  Perhaps the most serious threat in almost a century, the Credit Crunch, may prove a blessing after all. “As the world struggles to recover from the most serious global economic crisis since the Great Depression,‘ says the report,” we have an unprecedented opportunity to turn away from consumerism.”

But will we?

This blog has reported previously on the growing recognition that the consumer era is over. We marveled at statements by Martin Sorrell the boss of WPP, the world’s second biggest ad agency that it is time for the  advertising industry to “make fashion unfashionable,” But little has happened to prove that the ad industry is turning talk into action.  How could it?  Advertising’s paymasters just could not allow it.

“By the early 1900s,” says the Worldwatch study, “a consumerist orientation had become increasingly embedded in many of the dominant societal institutions of many cultures—from businesses and governments to the media and education. And in the latter half of the century, new innovations like television, sophisticated advertising techniques, transnational corporations, franchises, and the Internet helped institutions to spread consumerism across the planet. Arguably, the strongest driver of this cultural shift has been business interests. On a diverse set of fronts, businesses found ways to coax more consumption out of people. Credit was liberalized, for instance, with installment payments, and the credit card was promoted heavily in the United States, which led to an almost 11-fold increase in consumer credit between 1945 and 1960.”
Are we then supposed to turn our backs on the system which has brought so much to so many?
Perhaps more realistically, neo-liberal pundit Thomas Friedman says we can harness our greed to create a move towards greener living. This is not from the report but from the Grist web site.
The world’s population is burning through the planet’s resources at a reckless rate, the US think-tank said. In the last decade, consumption of goods and services rose 28% to $30.5tn (£18.8tn) in 2008 dollars.
The consumer culture is no longer a mostly American habit but is spreading across the planet. Over the last 50 years, excess has been adopted as a symbol of success in developing countries from Brazil to India to China, the report said. China this week overtook the US as the world’s top car market. It is already the biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions.
Such trends were not a natural consequence of economic growth, the report said, but the result of deliberate efforts by businesses to win over consumers. Products such as the hamburger – dismissed as an unwholesome food for the poor at the beginning of the 20th century – and bottled water are now commonplace.
The report makes much of the fact that the average western family spends more on their pet than is spent by a human in Bangladesh.  But  it offers no route out of this consumer society, and, come to think of it,  its as pretty cheap shot in any case, since pets are one of the few innocent repositories of affection and uncompetitive values left inside the American household.
Erik Assadourian, the Worldwatch project director who led a team of 35 (why so many?) behind the report, said: “Until we recognise that our environmental problems, from climate change to deforestation to species loss, are driven by (our)unsustainable habits, we will not be able to solve the ecological crises that threaten to wash over civilisation.”
The report did note encouraging signs of a shift away from the high spend culture. It said school meals programmes marked greater efforts to encourage healthier eating habits among children. The younger generation was also more aware of their impact on the environment.

“We’ve seen some encouraging efforts to combat the world’s climate crisis in the past few years,” said Assadourian. “But making policy and technology changes while keeping cultures centred on consumerism and growth can only go so far.

“If we don’t shift our very culture there will be new crises we have to face. Ultimately, consumerism is not going to be viable as the world population grows by 2bn and as more countries grow in economic power.”

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