New Internationalist

The Aspiration Bomb

Issue 088

The human impact on the planet’s economy and ecology depends not only on the numbers of people but also on how much those people consume and aspire to. The rich world’s consumption explosion, writes Anuradha Vittachi, is at least as big a threat as the poor world’s ‘population explosion’.

A third of a million babies were born today. Ten out every eleven of those babies saw the light of their first day in a village or town in the poor world. Only the eleventh was born in an industrialised country.

Yet that eleventh baby will have a far greater impact on the earth’s finite resources and fragile ecosystems than all the other ten put together. For each person in the rich world will consume 20 to 40 times as much during his or her lifetime, as a person born in Africa, Asia or Latin America.

Commenting on these figures in his 1980 ‘State of World Population’ Report, Rafael Salas, Executive Director of the UN Fund for Population Activities, concludes that ‘while the so-called population bomb may have been defused, the aspiration bomb has not.’ ‘Every one of the 125 million babies born each year is a bundle of aspirations,’ says the Report, ‘and the desire to fulfill these aspirations will become the most dynamic and unpredictable force in world affairs in the year ahead’. It is a force which will take its toll not only on the environment but on the chances of improving the quality of life for the world’s poor majority.

Tomesh Thapar, India’s representative to the Club of Rome, has also warned against more and more consumption: ‘Rising expectations,’ he says, ‘should be interpreted in terms which raise the dignity of the world’s many millions who cannot possibly become the inheritors of even the minimum standards decreed by present day affluent societies.’

But back in the rich world, it seems that marketing men can take ‘wants’ above ,needs’ so much for granted that they have now moved on to the next state — playing off one want against another. A recent advertisement, for example, shows a tanned thigh emerging from a black slit skirt, pinned by a cluster of South African diamonds. The caption reads: ‘Now doesn’t that look better than a new bedroom carpet?’

The complaint is not new. ‘Civilisation,’ mocked Mark Twain, ‘is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessaries.’ The United Kingdom alone spends a billion pounds a year on advertising to increase consumption. The United States spends ten times that figure. Without any increase, the rich world already consumes 70 per cent of the world’s food grains. And most of that grain is used to feed animals, not people. ‘Less than one tenth of the grains fed to Northern beef cattle,’ said the UN Development Programme in 1974, ‘equals this year’s food grain deficit in the Third World’.

The rich world also consumes 86 per cent of the world’s energy. It gets through nearly twice as much now as it did twenty years ago, although, as Aurelio Peccei, editor of ‘Beyond the Age of Waste’ points out: ‘Life in 1960 was not exactly unbearable.’ He adds that the US now consumes three times as much energy per head as does France, and concludes: ‘It is clear that a high quality of life does not depend on every increasing consumption.’

On the other hand, indigence and the perception of gross inequality do undermine the quality of life. And inequalities are worsening. In 1900 the average person in the rich world had four times as much as a person in the poor world. By 1970 the ratio was 40 to 1.

It is because the world is so obviously working on the principle ‘to him who hath shall be given’ that the developing nations are pressing their demands for a New Economic Order. The present order, they claim, is geared to meeting the wants of the few, not the needs of the many.

But what the Third World is asking for now is not so much a transfer of present wealth from rich to poor countries but a redistribution of opportunities for future economic progress. At present the average American can expect a pay rise next year which is greater than the average Indian can expect in the next hundred years.

So far, high unemployment and inflation rates have kept the Third World’s concerns very much on theperiphery. But there are whispers of change in the wind.

Potentially the most important of them is the debate which was heard in Sweden in the 1970s. Today it remains a whisper. But if it were to become a roar, then the direction of the industrialised world could be changed and the aspiration bomb defused.

The debate began when Swedish futurologists Goran Backstrand and Lars Ingelstam pointed out that by the end of the century Sweden would be producing and consuming three times as much paper, six times as many chemicals, twice as much food, and four times as many industrial products. Sweden’s population is not expected to increase, they argued, so what is all this production for?

For some time therehadbeen a growing recognition that greatly increased prosperity was no longer bringing about a commensurate increase in happiness. At the same time, there was also a growing awareness of the environmental consequences of accelerating production and consumption.

At this time, too, Third World voices were beginning to make themselves heard - and there was a new note of warning in the call forjustice. ‘It is no longer possible,’ wrote Romesh Thapar, ‘to talk patronisingly to undernourished peoples about minimum standards of living. It will not be tolerated. The new theme will have to be the maxima - a standard beyond which consumption is criminal waste.’

Backstrand and Ingelstam put these arguments together and suggested that Sweden should become the first rich country to cry ‘Enough is enough!’ and change direction - for the sake of the environment, for the sake of world peace, for the sake of the needs of the majority of mankind and for the sake of the quality of life in Sweden itself.

They translated rhetoric into precise examples of ways in which Sweden could cut down on wasteful consumption whilst maintaining a high standard of living. For example, they suggested realistic maximum consumption levels for meat, energy, living space and private transport.

Their Report ‘How Much is Enough?’ has so far generated more words than action. But it is perhaps the nearest that the rich world has yet come to taking seriously Mahatma Gandhi’s famous dictum: ‘The world has enough for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.’

Altruism apart, there are other good reasons for moving away from consumption-craziness. Leading simpler lives - even to a small degree - saves the planet for the children and grandchildren of the rich as well as of the poor. And a pause in the rush to buy the Good Life may create the time and space needed to ask crucial questions about the quality rather than the standard of life.

Robert Heilbroner, American philosopher, put into words the alienation increasingly experienced among the affluent; ‘Observers have wondered why their contemporaries,who are three or five or ten times richer than their grandparents, did not seem to be three or five or ten times happier or more content or more richly developed as human beings.’

Perhaps the world can no longer afford to see economic realism and humanitarian philosophy as separate and opposing forces.

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