By José Santamarta
Consumerism today dominates the minds and hearts of millions of people, replacing religion, family, and politics. Compulsive consumption of goods is the main cause of environmental degradation.
Current economic and political development is characterized, according to the latest Worldwatch report, more than by the victory of capitalism over communism, by consumerism. Consumerism today dominates the minds and hearts of millions of people, replacing religion, family, and politics. Compulsive consumption of goods is the main cause of environmental degradation.
Technological change allows us to produce more than we demand and offer more than we need. Endless consumption and economic growth is the paradigm of the new religion, where increased consumption is a way of life necessary to maintain economic activity and employment.
The consumption of goods and services, of course, is essential to satisfy human needs, but when a certain threshold is exceeded, which is around 7,000 euros per year per person, it becomes consumerism.
1.7 billion consumers, 2.8 billion poor
In the world, the consumer society is made up of 1,728 million people, 28% of the world's population: 242 million live in the United States (84% of its population), 349 million in Western Europe (89% of the population) , 120 million in Japan (95%), 240 million in China (barely 19% of its population), 122 million in India (12%), 61 million in Russia (43%), 58 million in Brazil (33%) and only 34 million in sub-Saharan Africa (5% of the population). In total, 816 million consumers live in industrialized countries (80% of the population) and 912 million in developing countries (only 17% of the Third World population).
While the 1.7 billion consumers spend more than 20 euros daily, there are 2.8 billion people who have to live on less than 2 euros a day (the minimum to satisfy the most basic needs) and 1.2 billion people live on less than 1 euro a day in extreme poverty. While the average American consumes 331 kilos of paper each year, in India they use 4 kilos and in much of Africa less than 1 kilo. 15% of the population of industrialized countries consumes 61% of aluminum, 60% of lead, 59% of copper and 49% of steel. Similar figures could be repeated for all types of goods and services.
Consumerism and poverty coexist in an unequal world, in which there is no political will to stop the consumerism of some and raise the standard of living of those who need it most. The consumer class shares an increasingly uniform way of life and culture, where large supermarkets and shopping centers are the new cathedrals of modernity.
If the consumption habits of the 1.7 billion consumers were extended to the entire world population (6.3 billion people), the situation would be completely unsustainable, due to the consumption of water, energy, wood, minerals, soil and other resources, and loss of biodiversity, pollution, deforestation and climate change.
Between 1950 and 2002 the consumption of water has tripled, that of fossil fuels has quintupled, that of meat grew by 550%, carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 400%, world GDP increased by 716%, trade Worldwide grew by 1,568%, world advertising spending grew by 965%, the number of tourists who left its borders grew by 2,860%, the number of cars went from 53 million in 1950 to 565 million in 2002 and the consumption of paper it grew 423% between 1961 and 2002. The important gains in efficiency are quickly absorbed by the increase in consumption. Homes are getting bigger and cars are getting more and more powerful.
But the solution cannot be a new apartheid, which limits consumption to that minority of 28% of the world's population. The population is growing, but less and less, and will probably stabilize in the coming decades at about 9 billion, as has already happened in most industrialized countries. But consumption continues to grow, and the needs, as any economics manual shows, are endless.
How much consumption is enough? Consumption, after a certain threshold (13,000 euros per year per person, according to surveys), does not bring happiness. The consumer works too many hours to pay for compulsive consumption, and the little leisure is spent in the car (the American uses 72 minutes behind the wheel) or in front of the television (more than 240 minutes a day on average in today's societies). It is increasingly trapped in a spiral of consumption, borrowing to consume and working to pay more debt. Consumption is made at the cost of mortgaging the future, as in the brick boom in Spain today.
Today a new paradigm based on sustainability is necessary, which means satisfying all the basic needs of all people, and controlling consumption before it controls us. Among the most immediate measures, it is necessary to eliminate subsidies that harm the environment (850,000 million dollars a year that encourage the consumption of water, energy, pesticides, fish, forest products and the use of the car), carry out a profound ecological reform of the taxation, introducing ecological and social criteria in all purchases of goods and services by public administrations, new rules and laws aimed at promoting durability, repair and "updating" of products instead of planned obsolescence, labeling programs and promotion of fair consumption. And all this within a strategy of "dematerialization" of the economy, aimed at satisfying needs without undermining the pillars of our existence.
* Jose Santamarta
Director of World Watch
Article for Profesiones magazine published by Unión Profesional.