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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.

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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)


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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The writer's standpoint is a bit extreme

This writer's opinion seems a bit extreme. I feel that developed countries have more of a duty and a responsibility to reduce their 'global footprint' than developing countries; after all, it is they who are rushing to use up most of the world's resources, and are really not in any position to find fault with the paths taken by developing countries. But of course it would be better if developing countries do not repeat the same mistakes as developed countries.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



What does Diamond mean?

Jared Diamond writes in "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive" that "China will, of course, not tolerate being told not to aspire to first world levels. But the world cannot sustain China and other third-world countries and current first-world countries all operating at first-world levels." This statement is ridiculous, it's a clear case of double-standards. Should third-world countries suffer poverty? I think first-world countries need to do some soul-searching first! What about the pollution and consumption of resources they are responsible for in the third world? But hostile accusations and fear will not help the situation. Although first-world countries have already profited at others' expense, well-meaning offers of help and guidance can aid third-world countries in reducing the ecological footprint of their development.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



A question of 'duty'

This is a situation that often occurs when discussing the environment or consumption in developing countries.

When faced with the reality of increased pollution, people will often use the excuse that the Western countries did it first.

That accusation is meaningless because it doesn't matter who did it first: everyone is equally responsible for the destruction they, and their habits, wreck on the environment.

Of course the United State's dependence on oil is reckless, but so is China's. Of course there has been terrible air pollution in England during the nineteen hundreds from its own period of rapid industrialization. But that doesn't mean we can turn a blind eye to the pollution that is going on today.

Jared Diamond is very clear in what he says: the wasteful ways of mass consumption and culture of consuming prevalent in most of the Western world is not something we should aspire to.

Everyone needs to do soul searching - not only the first world. Blaming others for their role in the degradation leads us no where. Instead, why not focus our energy on what WE can do.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



some rants

face it, most of these "critiques" from european and north american publications are based on thinly veiled xenophobia and ethnocentricism at best. it's no secret that most of the white nations of the world (G8) can't stand to see the brown and yellow people progressing above them in terms of economics and military strength. so the environment becomes an easy target when industrializing nations like china is rapidly surpassing those developed nations in terms of having money and large standing armies. given the current track record of the united states and its allies in the environment, they ought to be the last ones to criticize when most of the oil, timber, metal and other raw materials are outsourced overseas to developing nations like china and china's environment is destroyed because china is manufacturing finished products for american and european consumption. it's ironic and even hypocritical that western nations are criticizing china's environmental degradation from it's industries when those western nations are the direct beneficiaries of china's manufacturing and environmental degradation. what they can't stand is that china's also getting rich thru the process and they can't do anything about it.

while there's no denying that china and the rest of the world face grave environmental consequences (and already have in many ways), and that serious studies and attempts at self-sustaining methods of economic production must be looked at and implemented, there's little credibility to many of the environmental rants that western nations impose upon china when they themselves have made little attempts at changing their lifestyles.

in many ways, it's like those chinese government workers that didn't follow thru on the energy conservation effort a few weeks ago: their "let somebody else do it" indifference and execuse reflects perfectly the western nations' sense of self-entitlement and self-contradictions of environmental action. so as long the west demands cheap manufactured goods from retailers like wal-mart without any regards to the environmental costs associated with the manufacturing of those goods, china will "sacrifice" its environment in the mad rush to get rich on its own terms. the only solution is self-sustainable development and all nations should look into cooperative efforts that would make them do so.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



the importance of technology

just a follow up to the "some rants" post here.

what china should do is look at and implement new technologies that are being developed that use alternative sources of fuel. for instance, those new buses that run on fuel cells which are being tested out on beijing's street are a nice move in the right direction. as well as bio-disel, methane, wind and solar and other forms of renewable fuel sources are cruicial to meeting china's energy demands. i'm skeptical on hydro-electricity because of the environmental changes associated with damming up large bodies of water; however, it doesn't mean cheap sources of electricity that are non-polluting shouldn't be given serious consideration.

by skipping traditional fossil fuels for new cars and power generating plants for industry, china can lead the world in terms of advancing technology and development of self-sustaining energy sources. without the oil industry monopolies' influence on the american and european governments that stifles innovation and ecological protection (as well as wars like iraq), china can lead the world both in terms of it's current trajectory of industrial production and as well as environmental protection.

and western medias that "report" on china can give credit where it's due that china is attempting to utilize these new technologies in some ways that far outpaces what their own countries have been trying to implement.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







China's opportunity

Developed countries certainly have a responsibility and a duty, in moral terms, to reduce their global footprint. At the same time, developing nations such as China need to ensure that, in growing as they will, they do not repeat the worst mistakes of the developed nations. For example, the technology exists today to produce clean energy and clean-running vehicles. (In fact, it has existed for quite a while.) What’s lacking is the political will to change things. The governments and populations of all countries -- large or small, developed or developing -- need to mandate action for truly sustainable living. They need to address global warming and its ramifications as a planetary emergency and devise ways to manage our precious resources efficiently. Carbon dioxide reduction anywhere in the world is good for the earth. Numerous times throughout China’s history, the country has moved in daring leaps. China has an opportunity now to leap ahead again, especially in the energy sector. Unlike the US, many experts say, China is not overly invested in oil and can more easily move into new fuels. In both urban and rural areas, investment in solar power and other clean, renewable sources can make a significant difference in reducing the degradation of air, water and land. Such progress would be a boon to human health, and a win-win situation all around. No one can seriously argue that China and other nations should not develop. They have the same right (and need) to do so as the so-called first world countries. But what they also have is an opportunity to do it better. – Maryann Bird

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匿名 | Anonymous



Meeting China's demands

[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.]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



About Ms. Bird

Ms. Bird, like most western writers, is very superficial with her analysis and prognosis of the societal trends of a people whom she barely knows about. The Chinese, as with all peoples, do want the better things of life made possible by modern technology. What she and all westerners overlook is that the ordinary Chinese is a very frugal person. The point I wish to make is that while we may appear to possess first world goodies, or want to, our habits and our consumption of resources to obtain and to maintain that status is probably a fraction of that consumed by a westerner.

I, and many of my Chinese friends in Canada where I am, already have all the good things in life such as a large house, a car, the household appliances and much else. What we can’t get out of our system is the habit of “not wasting” anything. Thus we count the value of every cent, buying only when there is a sale and cutting expenses to the bone. We don’t drive our car to the corner store to pick up a carton of milk. We walk or more likely plan our purchases so that we buy our groceries at one go. We eat every part of the chicken except the feathers and the cluck. Food is never wasted. We don’t waste money on junk food or snotty fine dining either. Lights not needed are switched off. Toilet flushing is minimal (don’t ask)

When we drive always at the back of our minds is how much gas we will use up. We take care of our cars so that they last more than 10 years. We seldom throw anything away and will recycle where possible. On account of this an average Chinese home will have a lot of mismatched stuff because much of them is bought at bargain prices. Plus since we never throw away any stuff the items span the architectural styles spanning several decades. Try assembling a matching décor. I could probably write a book on Chinese frugality.

Yes China will use up more and more of the world’s resources. But the resources consumed by per Chinese person will be a lot lower than per western person. You can observe this for yourself anytime among your Chinese friends and neighbors. Furthermore the mainland Chinese lives in a home probably one quarter the size of my Canadian one. There is very limited opportunity for conspicuous consumption or for waste. There being so many of us of course the gross totals in consumption and waste produced will eventually be higher than the developed countries. But all the possible energy saving and material saving measures are already in practice in Chinese homes. Granted pollution from inefficient and dated industries is a big problem. Fortunately the Government is aware of this and is actively correcting this is as China moves up the modernization ladder.

Kelvin Mok

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



chinese frugality

Kelvin, your comments frankly are smug and short sighted. You are in Canada. I am in Beijing where I see young, wealthy Chinese obsessed with which model of mobile phone they want to have next. They have a perfectly good working phone but it isn't the latest model, so they want a new one. How is this different from the west? Chinese people live in smaller houses, on average, yes, than they do in China. But according to Chinese government sstatistics, energy consumption in China is much less efficient than in the west or in India. Chinese culture today is consumerist.. people are bombarded with adverts that tell them they will be happy if only they buy certain things.. China is going down a dangerous path. You cn say Chinese people are entitled to live profligate and extravagant lives but it only works if you have a spare planet to live on. Where's your spare planet. Kelvin? If you don't have one, wake up, stop being smug, stop leaving it to the government -- your government's record on the environment is one of the worst in the world. It's time the Chinese people accepted they are all responsible and they should all act.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Kelvin is only partly right about Chinese frugality (although buying cheap doesn’t necessarily mean environmentally friendly.). In nowadays China, vested interest new rich, officials enriched by corruption and the urban youth sometimes consume more extravagantly than their western counterparts—because money comes easy for them. On the other hand, although Japan is also a developed country, the living condition of average Japanese is also crowded, if not more crowded than many of us in China. In Japan, a family of four typically lives in a flat of about 70 square meters (while in China now it is often more than 100M2 for the family of civil servants and white collars etc.), much smaller than you guys in Canada. The reason is simple: rich as Japan, it is still constrained by the affordability of its land and resources, let alone China, a poor country with limited resources, huge population and crowded space too.