Triumph without Winners
A Study of the Worldwatch-Institute declares: The Western Lifestyle makes People Rich, Swollen and Heavy-set but not Happy
By Thorsten Stegemann
[This article originally published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.telepolis.de/deutsch/inhalt/co/16507/1.htm.]
The fall of the Iron Curtain removed wide parts of command socialism and also deeply shook belief in an alternative to the manifestly superior economic- and social systems. That the western style of capitalism that has subjugated the world for nearly 15 years - without serious resistance - can solve long-term global problems is doubtful.
The latest State of the World report  of the renowned Worldwatch-Institute  criticizes the myth that boundless consumption leads to a better quality of life.
According to the data of the Institute, 1.7 billion people count themselves in the so-called "consumer class" in which more goods are purchased than necessary for the satisfaction of basic needs. In the United States, 84% of the whole population belongs to this group. In Germany they are even 92% and in Japan 95%. China includes 240 million consumers in the "consumer class" and together with India has numerically more consumers than all Western Europe. The financial power is considerably different. The 12% of the world population who live in America and Western Europe are responsible for 60% of the consumption while a third of the world population in South Asia and large parts of Africa only consume 3.2 and 1.2 billion people must live in abject poverty.
Worldwatch calculates that $75 billion are spent annually for luxury goods like make up, perfume, culinary delights, cruises or ice cream while "only" $47.3 billion would be necessary for women's health care, removing hunger and malnutrition, clean drinking water, inoculating children and the struggle against illiteracy.
People can certainly argue over these numbers. However the fast rise in sales for ever larger, better and more beautiful cars, houses or refrigerators is more alarming than the global disparities. Since 1960 spending for consumer goods has multiplied fourfold to over $20 billion. The consumption of coal, oil and gas has increased fivefold since 1950. More and more forests, watersheds and other unspoilt regions must give way to streets, shopping centers and new houses.
As a forerunner of this development, the US provides some very obscure statistics. Apart from the fact that US citizens throw away almost 100 billion plastic bags every year, American refrigerators and houses are 10% to 38% larger in the last 30 years. The number of legal vehicles exceeds the number of driver licenses. Thus the question how 4.5% of the world population can be responsible for a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions can be answered relatively quickly.
Although Americans are consumer world masters and carry around a more or less visible over-weight, contentment has obviously not increased. Only a third of US citizens say they are "very happy", as many as in 1957 when the prosperity was only half as great. Americans are the people under the most time pressure because they work the most for their consumption, allegedly 350 hours or 9 weeks of work more than the average European.
Unrestrained consumerism goes far beyond what the planet can bear according to the opinion of the Worldwatch Institute. Therefore its president warns of the "unparalleled consumer appetite that undermines natural foundations of life on which we all depend and makes it more difficult for the poor to satisfy their basic needs. Nevertheless Brian Halwell who together with Lisa Mastry was project director of the "State of the World" report does not want to rashly condemn western economic principles:
The nearly three billion people worldwide who manage with less than $2 a day must increase their consumerism to satisfy their basic needs - food, clean water and hygienic conditions. In China corresponding to the demands of consumers stimulates the economy, creates jobs and attracts foreign investors.
Therefore the Worldwatch Institute pleads for fundamental ecological tax reforms to force manufactures to pay for the environmental damages arising through their products and for their proper disposal. Moreover production methods must be developed that relate far more sparingly with natural resources. According to the view of Christopher Flavin, more positive future prospects could appear if humanity succeeds "in controlling consumption instead of allowing consumption to control us".