Chapter 1: The State of Consumption Today

Gary Gardner, Erik Assadourian, and Radhika Sarin


The world today produces and consumes more than ever before. Modern industrialworkers now produce in a week what took their 18th century counterparts fouryears. Private consumption expenditures—the amount spent on goods and servicesat the household level—topped more than $20 trillion in 2000, a four-foldincrease over 1960.

One quarter of humanity—1.7 billion people worldwide—now belong tothe “global consumer class,” having adopting the diets, transportationsystems, and lifestyles that were once mostly limited to the rich nations ofEurope, North America, and Japan. Today, China, India, and other developing countriesare home to growing numbers of these consumers.

Yet the world is one of contrasts. While the consumer class thrives, great disparitiesremain. As many as 2.8 billion people on the planet struggle to survive on lessthan $2 a day, and more than one billion people lack reasonable access to safedrinking water. The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives inNorth America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumptionspending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accountsfor only 3.2 percent.

People must consume to survive, and the world’s poorest will need to increasetheir level of consumption if they are to lead lives of dignity and opportunity.But the world cannot continue on its current trajectory—the earth’snatural systems simply cannot support it. The economies of mass consumption thatproduced a world of abundance for many in the twentieth century face an entirelydifferent challenge in the twenty-first: to focus not on the indefinite accumulationof goods but instead on a better quality of life for all, with minimal environmentalharm.

  • Consumption by the Numbers
  • Disparate Drivers, Common Result
  • Problems in Paradise
  • A New Role for Consumption?