Waste all, want more

Sun, 08/07/2005 - 00:00

"THE avarice of mankind is insatiable," wrote Aristotle 23 centuries ago, describing the way that as each of man's desires is satisfied a new one seems to appear in its place. That observation, on which all of economic theory is based, provides the most obvious answer to the question of why people never seem satisfied with what they have. If man's wants are insatiable, there is simply no such thing as enough.

Much confirms this view of human nature. The Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote a century before Christ: "We have lost our taste for acorns. So (to) we have abandoned those couches littered with herbage and heaped with leaves. So the wearing of wild beasts' skins has gone out of fashion Skins yesterday, purple and gold today - such are the baubles that embitter human life with resentment."

Nearly, 2,000 years later, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy echoed Lucretius: "Seek among men, from beggar to millionaire, one who is contented with his lot, and you will not find one such in a thousand Today, we must buy an overcoat and galoshes, tomorrow, a watch and chain; the next day we must install ourselves in an apartment with a sofa and a bronze lamp; then we must have carpets and velvet gowns; then a house, houses and carriages, paintings and decorations."

What distinguishes modern consuming habits from those of interest to Lucretius and Tolstoy, some would say, is simply that the world today is much richer than in the past. A Filipino teenager talks on a cell phone. An American child plays with a plastic doll. A man in Taiwan fills his car with gasoline. A Thai tourist drinks bottled water bought in a nearby store.

The technological advances of the past century or so have made it possible "to produce more than was demanded and to offer more than was needed," as journalist Edward Rothstein pointed out in his article which appeared in The New York Times.

But the question is: Is this a case of too much of a good thing? "If the levels of consumption that several hundred million of the most affluent people enjoy today were replicated across even half of the roughly 9 billion people projected to be on the planet in 2050, the impact on our water supply, air quality, forests, climate, biological diversity, and human health would be severe," wrote Gary Gardner, Erik Assadourian, and Radhika Sarin, authors of the Worldwatch paper, 'The State of Consumption Today.'

Although most consumer spending occurs in the wealthier regions of the world, the number of consumers is spread a bit more evenly between industrial and developing regions. This is clear from research done by former UN Environment Program consultant Matthew Bentley, who describes the existence of a global "consumer class" - people who have incomes over US$7,000 of purchasing power parity (an income measure adjusted for the buying power in local currency).

"Consumption trends cover virtually every conceivable good and service, and these can be categorized in many ways," the three authors of Worldwatch paper note. "Of particular interest are fundamentals such as food and water; trends for these give a sense of whether basic needs are being met. Other consumer items indicate the degree to which life options are expanding for people, and how much more comfortable life is becoming."

The Worldwatch paper has highlighted some disparities between the rich and poor. Consider the following:

  • People in industrial countries get 856 of their daily calories from animal products while in developing countries the figure is 350.
  • Americans use more than 300 kilograms of paper annually. In developing nations as a whole, people use 18 kilograms of paper each year.
  • The average American uses 22 kilograms of aluminum a year, while the average Indian use 2 kilograms and the average African, less than one kilogram

Aside from the United States, also belonging to the top global consumer class are Japan, Germany, Russian Federation, Brazil, France, Italy and United Kingdom. Two developing countries - China and India - account for more than 20 percent of the global total.

"The global appetite for goods and services is driven by a set of largely independent influences, from technological advances and cheap energy to new business structures, powerful communications media, population growth, and even the social needs of human beings," the three authors pointed out. "These disparate drivers - some are natural endowments, others accidents of history, still others human innovations - have interacted to send production and demand to record levels. In the process, they have created an economic system of unprecedented bounty and unparalleled environmental and social impact."

And that's where trouble gets into the picture. For instance, roughly three tons of toxic mining wastes are produced in mining the amount of gold needed in a single wedding ring.

Fishers kill as many as 100 million sharks each year to feed the world's appetite for shark meat and shark fin soup. Hunters typically catch and defin sharks while the fish are still alive, throwing them back into the ocean, where they either drown or bleed to death.

An international team of ecologists, economists, and conservation biologists published a study in 'Science' in 2002 indicating that nearly all the world's ecosystems are shrinking to make way for humans and their homes, farms, malls, and factories.

More than half of Earth's wetlands, from coastal swamps to inland floodplains, have been lost, largely due to draining or filling for human settlements or agriculture.

Early in the age of affluence that followed World War II, an American retailing analyst named Victor Lebow declared: "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate."

Unfortunately, much of the world has followed this call.

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