Global challenge

Review of

The New Consumers: The Influence of Affluence on the Environment

Washington D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2004, 199 pp.

The past quarter century has witnessed a momentous global transformation occasioned by the rise of new economic powers. China has experienced the most rapid economic expansion in world history, its output of goods and services growing by some nine percent a year for several decades. Several smaller countries have almost matched China’s pace, while India, now expanding at a 7.5 percent annual rate, is not far behind.

The economic development of countries such as India and China, coupled with the equally rapid descent of others, such as the woefully misnamed Democratic Republic of the Congo, challenge our most basic concepts of global geography. We can no longer casually contrast the “developed world” with the “developing world” or simplemindedly juxtapose a wealthy “North” with an impoverished “South.” Although we may be slow to recognize it, differential growth is, as Norman Meyers and Jennifer Kent argue in their important new book, “redrawing the economic map of the word.”

In The New Consumers, Meyers and Kent are only tangentially interested in the reconfiguration of global geography. They focus instead on the effects of this transformation on nature, as is aptly captured by their subtitle: The Influence of Affluence on the Environment. The affluent new consumers of China are increasingly following the patterns set initially in the United States, spending large proportions of their expanding disposable incomes on automobiles, meat, and electricity-demanding appliances. Such lifestyle choices are already placing huge demands on local ecosystems, and they increasingly threaten the global environment as well. The prospect of hundreds of millions of additional people consuming resources at the U.S. pace is more than a little un-settling. Will the world’s forests be able to produce the necessary lumber and pulp; its fields the needed calories? How will the atmosphere respond to the additional output of carbon dioxide? Considering current trends, these are some of the most pressing questions now facing the global community. Meyers and Kent are to be congratulated for bringing them to public attention in this concise, accessible, and carefully argued book.

Although many eco-radicals call for a return to earlier modes of production and consumption, responsible environmentalists have long argued that economic development is necessary for the preservation of nature. Only genuine development, for example, can free the rural poor from having to produce large families in order to acquire basic security. The central issue then becomes what kind of development can fulfill essential human needs while sparing the environment. After weighing the tradeoffs, most environmentalists have advocated broad-based development programs designed to lift entire populations out of destitution and insecurity while avoiding rampant consumerism. An example favored by many has been the Indian state of Kerala, which by the 1980s had achieved nearly universal education, a sustainable fertility rate, low levels of morbidity, and an almost total lack of penury, while its per capita gross domestic product remained on the order of a few hundred dollars a year, resulting in a correspondingly small ecological impact.

By the turn of the millennium, however, it had become clear that the Kerala model of development would remain exceptional. Instead, blistering rates of economic growth in certain parts of the (former) Third World were replicating at more local scales the same stark division of wealth and poverty formerly seen in the world at large. In India and China, some regions and social classes were becoming prosperous and consumption-oriented, whereas others were remaining desperately poor. To be sure, a few countries such as South Korea and Taiwan had seen broad-based social development, with all social segments rising to positions of comfort. These success stories, however, depended especially heavily on global patterns of resource procurement, putting severe pressure on the world’s forests and fisheries. To see China, with its 1.3 billion inhabitants, following their lead understandably fills most environmentalists with dread, while prompting Meyers and Kent to write The New Consumers.

Meyers and Kent, it is important to note, do not see the rise of the new consumers as a wholly negative phenomenon. The mere fact that millions have been lifted out of poverty and can now pursue their own wants is, they allow, something to celebrate. In a move unusual for environmentalists, they go so far as to laud the spread of global capitalism. “Fortunately,” they tell us, India is now “promoting venture capital and deregulating [its] markets. As a result, India, the world’s largest political democracy, is on its way to becoming an eminent economic democracy as well.”

Despite these acknowledged benefits, it remains questionable whether the patterns of consumption being embraced by the rising global middle class are environmentally or even economically sustainable in the long run, given the negative externalities they generate. Here, Meyer and Kent’s analysis is cogent and compelling. If anything, they give short shrift to a number of resource issues. The depletion of fisheries, for example, is barely mentioned.

But if the overall picture remains gloomy, The New Consumers is not, unlike so many works in its genre, a pessimistic book. The authors find hope in a number of new eco-friendly technologies that will allow material prosperity while going easy on the environment. “In fact,” they contend, “there are enough eco-technologies to enable everybody to enjoy twice as much material wellbeing, while using only half as much raw materials and energy and causing only half as much pollution.” They also point to the growth of nonconsumptive expenditures, hoping for the further spread of knowledge products such as sports, the arts, and outdoor trips. But a pervasive change in attitude, they argue, will also be necessary if consumers are to make the necessary departure from competitive and compulsive purchasing.

Although these are familiar environmental arguments, Meyers and Kent couch them in fresh terms. Particularly intriguing is the way that they turn the optimists’ credo, that of putting faith in the future while pillorying doubters, on its head. Blanket optimism is conventionally deployed by technological enthusiasts who naively trumpet human ingenuity to deny the severity of the global environmental crisis. But when Meyers and Kent write, “Let’s believe we can do it, let’s beware the naysayers,” they are calling instead for a focused application of such ingenuity to address very real environmental threats.

Veering into alarmism

Although Meyers and Kent generally offer a balanced, economically cognizant approach to our environmental dilemma, they occasionally veer into alarmism, just as their optimism remains oddly blinkered. They argue, for example, that increased meat consumption is already undercutting the world’s grain supply, potentially pricing millions out of the market. This problem is supposedly compounded by the fact that Green Revolution agro-technologies have largely played themselves out. But the recent rise in the cost of grain actually represents a modest reversal of a long-standing trend of declining real prices, a trend that has forced more than a few farmers in the United States out of business. There are good reasons to expect market forces to quickly bolster the global harvest, dampening further price hikes. Standard Green Revolution techniques, moreover, have barely been applied to the rough grains, such as the various millets, that feed many of the world’s poorest people, while more sophisticated biotechnologies surely offer further hope. All such developments, to be sure, would come at an environmental cost, giving us good reason to be concerned about increasing meat consumption as well as increasing human numbers. There is little need, however, to worry about the ability of the global economy to produce enough food.

One might also quibble with Meyer and Kent’s basic classification scheme. Their supporting statistical apparatus follows a selection of 20 countries, the more prosperous residents of which constitute the “new global consumers.” To fit within this club, a state must have a record of fast economic growth, generally averaging 5 percent a year for 10 years, together with a population of at least 20 million. Their list, however, includes countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela that have seen little if any economic growth during the past 15 years. From 1990 to 2002, Russia’s gross national income “grew” at an average annual rate of –2.7 percent, whereas the figure for Ukraine was a spectacularly dismal –6.6 percent.

Somewhat more problematic is Meyer and Kent’s tendency to take certain ecological statistics at face value, as if they represented not rough indicators but rather exact figures. This is most apparent in their deployment of the “ecological footprint,” a measurement of “the impact of a country’s consumption on lands outside its own borders.” Every American, we are confidently informed, has a footprint of 9.7 global hectares (a global hectare being a hectare of “average biological productivity”). The ecological footprint may be a powerful concept that yields intriguing and disturbing data, but it strains credulity to think that it can really be measured so precisely. The authors do, after all, devote an entire appendix to explaining the shortcomings of an important economic metric, gross national income. Giving similar scrutiny to environmental measurements would have been helpful.

Overall, however, these are minor complaints. The New Consumers is a powerful and important book that deserves wide attention. One can only hope that it will reach a global readership, especially among the nascent elite of the former Third World.

Cite this Article

Lewis, Martin W. “Global challenge.” Issues in Science and Technology 21, no. 2 (Winter 2005).

Vol. XXI, No. 2, Winter 2005