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Worldwatch Institute:  Current Rates of World Consumption Unsustainable - 2004-01-09

The independent environment advocacy group, Worldwatch Institute, has released the 20th issue of its annual report, State of the World 2004, which this year focuses on the serious consequences resulting from growing rates of consumption of goods and services around the world. The study says current rates of consumption harm the environment and are unsustainable.

In introducing this year's report, Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin quoted historian Gary Cross. "More so than capitalism or democracy, it is consumerism that won the ideological wars of the 20th century," he said.

The Worldwatch report classifies 1.7 billion people around the world as consumers, using previous United Nations Environment Program research that sets annual purchasing power parity at about $7,000 for individual household expenditures.

Mr. Flavin pointed to increases in the use of fresh water and fossil fuel as evidence that consumption is on the rise. "Indicators of the impacts of that consumption at the global level can be seen in the fact that consumption of fresh water has grown three-fold in the last 50 years, while fossil fuel use has risen five-fold," he said.

Mr. Flavin went on to say that some of the resulting worldwide trends are positive, such as reducing poverty. But, at the same time, he says there have been many negative results, such as growing levels of obesity, depleted fisheries, falling water tables and even rising sea levels.

Worldwatch's director of research, Gary Gardner, said the industrialized world - including the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand - is responsible for the bulk of global consumption. He added that one surprising finding in this year's study is that that consumption rate continues to grow.

"That is, in countries where basic needs have long since been met, where the opportunity to live a diversified and dignified life has also been available for decades," he said. In contrast, he added, consumption in sub-Saharan Africa, measured by household expenditures, is actually decreasing.

Meanwhile, according to the study, China has about the same number of consumers as the United States, or roughly 240 million people. The same can be said for India and Japan, which have about 120 million consumers each.

However, Mr. Gardner, said this does not mean that consumers in these countries are all consuming equally. "We don't want to be implying that China and India carry as much consumption weight as Japan and the United States. They certainly don't," he said. "On the other hand, I think it's interesting to note that China and India have far more potential to expand their consumer classes than the U.S. and Japan do. In China, for example, 19 percent of the population belongs to the consumer class. And in India, it's 12 percent. So, we can see the numbers of people who are moving up into the consumer class expand very dramatically in Asia."

The Worldwatch report says consumption's negative effects on the global environment cannot be neglected indefinitely. Researchers urged governments around the world to take the lead by requiring companies to meet certain environmental standards and by encouraging more environmentally-conscious consumer choices with things like more public transportation.