HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Few would argue that excessive consumption is putting a strain on the environment and its vital resources. But when consumption is a way of life, to the degree that it is exported globally as the means to alleviate poverty in the developing world, we find ourselves faced with a problem.
People line up to buy "I'm not a plastic bag" shopping totes in New York City last July.
Today, around 1.7 billion of us fall into the category of "the global consumer class," according to WorldWatch Institute. Together, we annually spend more than $20 trillion on products and services (2000 figures), four times as much as we spent in 1960.
Today, the richest 20 percent of people consume 86 percent of everything that is sold for private consumption. The poorest 20 percent consume 1 percent of it. A typical American buys 53 times as many products as someone from China, according to Sierra Club; one American's consumption of resources is equal to that of 35 Indians. And over the course of their lives, the average American will create 13 times as much environmental damage as the average Brazilian.
Worldwide, from the 1950s to the 1990s, our consumption of timber, steel, copper, meat and energy on a per capita basis doubled. Our use of plastic quintupled. On the other hand, however, the world lost more than 30 percent of the resources it needed to sustain life and 10 percent of its forests between 1970 and 1995, Sierra Club says.
Sierra Club argues that 20th century consumption levels cannot continue for much longer without "catastrophic effects."
"If allowed to continue unchecked," it says. "It will almost certainly negate the material gains derived from accelerated consumerism and may undermine our ability to survive on the planet."
The WorldWatch Institute warned in 2004 that the world could not sustain too many more consumers. And it certainly could not lift the 2.8 billion people that survive on less than $2 a day into "the global consumer class."
Poverty alleviation as a concept has, therefore, become rather problematic: How can you lift people out of poverty when the act of making them wealthier -- so that they can then become consumers -- is rendered impossible by the fact that there are not enough resources available for them to be consumers in the first place?
China already has overtaken the United States in its consumption of grain, meat, coal and steel, according to OneWorld (Americans are still bigger oil consumers), but that only represents the collective buying power of a very small group of wealthy Chinese people. The real concern is when per capita consumption rates start to catch up with the West.
If the Chinese on a per capita basis were to consume the same amount of grain as Americans (291 kilograms, or 642 pounds compared to 935 kg, or 2,061 pounds today), China's total consumption would represent two-thirds of all the grain harvested worldwide in 2006, OneWorld reports. And if the Chinese ate as much meat per person as the Americans do now, they would be consuming around four-fifths of the world's total meat production.
Currently, the average "footprint" -- the amount of biologically productive space allocated per person in resources to sustain them -- is 2.3 global hectares. But the average American's footprint is 9.7 global hectares, while the average Chinese is only 1.6.
WorldWatch says that if just China and India wanted to achieve Japan's per capita footprint, for example, they would require an extra planet Earth's worth or resources to meet their needs.
'Green consumerism' takes hold
All the numbers would seem to point to one conclusion: Encouraging the developing world to consume like the West simply isn't a sustainable strategy. But telling the world to cut back on consumption is going to be an issue for a retail industry that makes $7 trillion a year. And according to UNEP, consumer spending represents two-thirds of the $10 trillion U.S. economy. Encouraging Americans to buy less doesn't seem a likely outcome any time soon.
The retail industry's response to climate change has been an entirely logical one: To promote "green consumerism." Surely, if people are buying organic, fair trade, energy-efficient products then it's OK to keep consuming, right? Not necessarily.
A study by CIBC World Markets found that making consumers feel better about their shopping choices -- by encouraging them to buy energy efficient products -- produced one notable outcome: They bought more.
The study found that between 1975 and 2005, energy efficiency levels in various sectors improved but overall energy usage shot up by 40 percent, reports PlanetArk.com. The two areas where this trend was most prevalent were cars and household appliances. While the average mileage per gallon has improved since 1980, it reports, "Americans have responded by driving larger vehicles and further." In 1970 the average American annually drove 9,500 miles (15,289 kilometers) -- today that figure is more than 12,000 miles (19,312 km).
Furthermore, the question of how much "green shopping" can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions is debatable. Wal-Mart recently released an environmental report which included details about its carbon footprint. It says that its U.S. operations emitted 15.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2005. But the vast majority of its emissions had nothing to do with the products it was selling -- 75 percent of the emissions came from the electricity needed to power all of its stores.
In that sense, the increase in consumer shopping online is logical. According to The Associated Press, 30 percent of Americans will do their Christmas shopping online this year. And a study in the United States by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory suggests they are making the right decision, claiming that "nearly a half-billion kilograms" of carbon dioxide emissions -- or 500,000 metric tons -- are prevented from being released into the atmosphere by doing so, reports AP.
Internet: Helping or hurting the environment?
What you are saving on by not going to the shops, is essentially gasoline. However, to assume Internet shopping is environmentally friendly is not necessarily the case. The products have to get to consumers one way or another -- so if consumers aren't driving to the shops, then the shops are getting vans to deliver the products to the consumers instead.
The increase in online shopping has actually resulted in increased overall emissions from vehicles - specifically delivery vans, according to The Times of London. Between 1997 and 2005, emissions by cars fell by 2.3 million tons, The Times reports. But emissions from vans increased by 3.3 million tons.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, who conducted the report said online retailing deliveries were often "poorly organized" with vans making long journeys with only one or two stops. Vans were now traveling four times further than cars.
A study undertaken by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the University of Sydney supports the fact that the decision whether to drive to the shops or not is not a major factor in reducing emissions: "Shopping habits represent such a large part of greenhouse gas emissions that even if every household switched to renewable energy and stopped driving cars tomorrow, total household emissions would fall by less than 20 percent", the Sydney Morning Herald reports, quoting the study.
The report makes another crucial observation -- the richer people get, the more they buy. The world's wealthy are the biggest climate change perpetrators -- regardless of how sustainable they think they are being. Those with money are able to afford solar panels and energy-efficient devices, but the report says their consumption habits effectively cancels out the benefit those devices can bring.
So with this in mind, how does one go about telling the developing world that they can't actually have the "American Dream" after all? That won't be easy.
And as China Dialogue quotes from Jared Diamond's book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive": "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." E-mail to a friend