WASHINGTON -- Fatter and ever hungrier for the latest physical comforts and social-status symbols, the average U.S. citizen is leading the world in building a global consumer society that is wreaking havoc on the world's natural resources, according to the 30th annual edition of Worldwatch Institute's 'State of the World' released here Thursday.
U.S. consumption styles have not only spread to other industrialized nations, according to the "State of the World: 2004;" they have succeeded in penetrating much of the developing world as well.
In China alone, 240 million people have joined the ranks of the "consumer class,'' accounting for about five percent of the estimated 1.7 billion people worldwide who have adopted the diets, transportation systems, and lifestyles pioneered in the U.S. and quickly taken up by other industrialized nations during the last century, according to the 245-page report.
By contrast, some 2.8 billion people live on less than US$2 a day, 1.1 billion of whom lack access to safe drinking water
Some 122 million Indians are also living an essentially western lifestyle--more than the roughly 121 million Japanese, 76 million Germans and 61 million Russians, 58 million Brazilians, and 53 million French people who also enjoy the fruits of consumer society, the report said.
The report defines membership in the consumer society as people with annual incomes over $7,000 of purchasing power, roughly equivalent to the official poverty level in the European Union. Members, according to the report, typically use television, telephones, and the Internet, ''along with the culture and ideas that these products transmit.''
Consumption of physical goods is important, Worldwatch stresses, particularly in providing jobs and income to families and societies. That income is vital to securing peoples' basic needs for food, clean water, and sanitation, among other services. But consumption also has serious downsides, especially on the natural resources that also contribute to sustaining human life.
"Rising consumption has helped meet basic needs and create jobs," said World president Christopher Flavin. ''But as we enter a new century, this unprecedented consumer appetite is undermining the natural systems we all depend on, and making it even harder for the world's poor to meet their basic needs."
"Higher levels of obesity and personal debt, chronic time shortages, and a degraded environment are all signs that excessive consumption is diminishing the quality of life for many people," according to Flavin. "The challenge now is to mobilize governments, businesses, and citizens to shift their focus away from unrestrained accumulation of goods and toward finding ways to ensure a better life for all."
Indeed, one of the more remarkable findings of the new report suggests that consumption may not be increasing general levels of personal happiness or social health.
Not only to do poor eating habits resulting from the growth in fast-food consumption contribute to obesity and the ailments that come with it, but, insofar as the United States is concerned, the sharp rise in consumption over the past 30 years has been accompanied by increases in poverty, teenage suicide, lack of health insurance coverage, and a steadily growing gap between rich and poor. About one-third of U.S. citizens today say they are ''very happy;'' the same share as in 1957 when average incomes were half what they are now, according to the report.
Private household spending on non-essential goods and services has increased four-fold since 1960 and now tops $20 trillion annually, according to the report. Of this total, 60 percent is spent by people living in North America and Western Europe--only 12 percent of the global population.
By contrast, the roughly 33 percent of the world's people living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa account for only 3.2 percent of total spending.
But consumption is rising most quickly in the developing world, as globalization introduces millions of people to consumer goods, while providing the technology and capital to produce and distribute them, according to the report.
"Nearly half of all global consumers now live in the developing world," said Lisa Mastny, who co-directed the project that produced the latest 'State of the World' report. "While the average Chinese or Indian consumes much less than the average North America or European, China and India alone now boast a combined consumer class larger than that in all of Western Europe."
Indeed, China, with roughly four times the U.S. population, will soon overtake the United States in the size of its consumer class. The United States currently has about 243 million people--or about 85 percent of its total population--who fall into the consumer class. The countries of Western Europe, where 89 percent of the people can be considered consumers, account for a total of almost 350 million consumers.
On a per capita basis, however, the United States is far ahead of the rest of the world and shows few signs of slowing down, according to the report.
In the U.S. today, there are more private vehicles on the road than people licensed to drive them; indeed, about one-quarter of the world's cars are found on U.S. roads. New houses in the U.S. were 38 percent bigger in 2000 than in 1975, despite having fewer people in each household on average.
Such consumption patterns help explain why, with only 4.5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. accounts for some 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions widely understood to contribute to global warming. The average U.S. citizen currently consumes five times more energy than the average global citizen, ten times more than the average Chinese, and 20 times more than the average Indian, according to the report.
U.S. consumers spend about $30 billion a year on toys, and U.S. children now receive on average some 69 toys a year. The number of clothing items bought by U.S. consumers increased 73 percent between 1996 and 2001, with the average U.S. consumer purchasing 48 new pieces of apparel a year.
Annual consumption of soda--a staple at fast-food restaurants that have introduced ever larger soda containers over the past decade--doubled to 185 liters between 1970 and 2001, and the United States has become the world's largest consumer of shrimp and caviar. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese.
Moreover, consumption levels have not translated into more leisure and less work. On the contrary, the need to worker longer hours to afford higher consumer lifestyles has meant that U.S. workers, on average, put in 350 more hours on the job than their European counterparts.
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