Chapter 15: Consumers, the environment and the new global middle classes
Consumption is at the same time inescapable and elusive. We consume to exist – is life anything but a sophisticated arrangement of molecules drawing matter and energy from its surroundings? And yet there is nothing simple about consuming, as anyone who has gone out to buy a pair of shoes knows. Consumption is the engine of the earth’s social-ecological metabolism. Deliberately or unintentionally, we draw on nature’s vast pool of resources to satisfy every single one of our material needs – and many of our spiritual ones too. Our society’s appetite for things of all sorts, from bananas to mobile phones, has resulted in the exploitation of natural resources at a speed and on a scale unprecedented in human history. Some of today’s major environmental problems such as climate change, overfishing and large-scale biodiversity loss are a direct consequence of our consumerist lifestyle. The issue of consumption seems all the more urgent in light of the rise of the so-called new global middle classes, which is just another way to describe the sharp decline of poverty across the world in recent years. In Asia alone about a billion people crossed the poverty line in the last 20 years, and another billion are likely to do so by 2030 (Asian Development Bank, 2010). This means that, in a relatively short time, hundreds of millions of people now earn enough money that they can worry about things other than simply surviving.
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