The adverse impacts of mass consumption on the environment are best illustrated by car ownership among many other things. In the US, the number of passenger vehicles has steadily risen to over 254 million (about 1.3 people per car). On the other hand, the number of passenger cars in China has shot up in recent years to overtake the US as the world’s largest auto market.
Suppose the Chinese appetite for autos eventually reaches the American standard of 1.3 people per car, its market of 1.3 billion would explode to 1 billion oil-burning cars, four times as big as today’s size. The auto and oil industries would be happy to produce as much as the market wants. However, an environmental breakdown in the form of air pollution and global warming would come first before this American Dream could be realized in China. The Chinese case also applies to other developing countries with large populations notably India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia, which are rapidly modernizing.
The world is now facing an enormous challenge of how to satisfy the exploding mass consumption of emerging countries without causing environmental disasters due to high oil consumption, air and water pollution, wastes generation, and depletion of natural resources. It should be noted that the problem is less about the size of the world population if most of them lived at subsistence level like they used to. It’s more about the spreading of wealth to the poor countries of the globe where large populations exist. Doesn’t this seem ironic? Breaking the bondage of poverty is necessarily desirable, but it carries an increasingly heavy price in the form of environmental degradation.
We have seen the rapid growth of mass consumption before due to the rise of the middle class. But this only occurred in the developed countries, whose combined population accounts for less than 10% of world total. When 10% of the people consume all of the world’s resources, they can do so to their hearts’ content without worrying about the environment while the rest are immersed in poverty. The situation is completely different nowadays as the 21st century arrives. The middle class is exploding in many developing countries with large populations as a result of industrialization. These emerging countries are now competing for natural resources with the developed ones.
Can the explosion of mass consumption be stopped in order to save the environment? We can’t realistically because there is no way to resist technological advancement and people’s materialistic ambitions. Furthermore, we can’t morally because the poor people of the world deserve a chance even though they are late to modernize. So what can be done? We must proceed on three paths that are equally important: market forces, government action, and education.
Market forces can help the environment if we want to make them so. For instance, everybody feels the pinch of rising oil prices, and thus adjusts his/her lifestyle accordingly. The result is that consumers drive less, cars are more fuel-efficient, and alternative energy becomes more attractive. On the other hand, market forces also carry negative effects because high oil prices increase the powers of the oil industry. This makes them more effective in resisting the development of alternative energy to protect their own interest.
Where market forces fail, government should take the initiatives. Government can discourage or encourage mass consumption. For instance, higher taxes on gasoline will effectively reduce mass consumption of oil. Subsidies or lower taxes on alternative fuels will stimulate production of alternative energy. Nevertheless, government has a tendency to bend to corrupt money. It cannot be expected to do the right thing all the time.
Education can enlighten people regarding the less obvious long-term effects on the environment. However, it depends on whether people are willing to learn. For instance, in the US and some other countries, a large segment of the people still mock the environmental sciences as voodoo science. They consider climate change as a hoax. They believe that we can continue to extract, burn and consume without environmental consequences. Most of them work in industries related to fossil fuels so they are blind to the adverse consequences. Nevertheless, we cannot give up on education because its enlightening effects can do the amazing thing of converting the most stubborn critic.
In conclusion, the environmental challenge of mass consumption in the 21st century is about long-term opportunity against short-term profit, the new attitude against the old, the nouveau rich against the established rich, and the young generation against the old. I have no doubt which side will win with the passage of time despite old thinking and entrenched interests must first be overcome.