For years, Americans have been criticized for their gluttony and waste as consumers, compared to citizens of other countries. Even the wealthiest nations of Europe and the Persian Gulf seem to use less of just about everything. More than a quarter of available food in the U.S. is simply squandered, for example.
But now, as many in the U.S. are struggling to bring their consumer excesses under control, much of the rest of the world appears to be joining in. Per capita consumption in China, India, Brazil, and the other homes of new wealth is still far below that in the United States—but it is growing fast. Increased wealth makes more consumption possible, while aggressive marketing of the consumer lifestyle speeds the global embrace of convenience, status, and luxury items.
Globalization has created unprecedented wealth and helped increase the middle class in many parts of the world, as human population continues to grow. But the basic equation, that more people with more money will use more resources and have a greater impact on the environment, does not always hold. When it comes to consumption, not all people are created equal. How much we use depends not only on how much we have, but also where we live, and how. According to one estimate, if everyone on the planet lived as the typical American does, we would need the equivalent of 5.4 Earths to supply our needs. By contrast, if we all lived like the typical Indian, we would consume less than half of the planet's resources. Put another way, each American consumes as much as 32 Kenyans do. The conclusion is obvious: We can probably make room for 9 billion people on the planet—we will soon have to. But it is very unlikely that we'll be able to accommodate 9 billion consumers on the American scale.
Greater wealth can, and does, bring increased access to good nutrition and health care, education, and other opportunities. But as a new generation of middle class consumers arises, we will come up against real limits on what the Earth can provide. For all of us, that means finding ways to use less, recycle more, and ultimately to learn to value sustainability over convenience.