The entire potentially catastrophic crisis-cocktail described in the previous problem statement is created by the over-consumption of the elite and the upper-class. Yes, over-population is also a concern, but it comes in a distant second to per-capita over-consumption. The fundamental problem is that we are running out of planetary resources and causing massive environmental damages and, as shown below, the top 10% of the population is responsible for fully 60% of this problem. If we could magically remove this 10% from the face of the earth, our planet would be able to sustainably provide for 4 billion additional people. On the other hand, if everyone consumed like this top 10%, more than 6 billion people would have to disappear before we have a sustainable civilization.
Unfortunately, the scary truth is that virtually every world citizen would like nothing better than to consume like the top 10%. And in chasing this horribly misguided goal, we have managed to create a consumerist society where consumption breeds more consumption. Because of the huge consumer demand of the top 10%, the economies of developed nations have slowly morphed away from production and towards consumption. Most developed economies nowadays generate about 70% of their GDP from the service sector which is essentially jobs specifically aimed at granting the top 10% easy consumption of the goods produced by developing nations. The more this top 10% consumes, the more such service-oriented jobs are created and the easier subsequent consumption becomes.
This makes developed nations especially vulnerable to an economic downturn. As soon as consumption rates decrease in such a total consumer economy, millions of people lose their jobs. Governments generally try to prevent this by printing money, taking on even more debt and granting the middle class additional purchasing power through cheap credit, but as we have seen, this only results in economic disasters like the 2008 housing bubble (see video below). As a direct result, more and more individuals are falling into the hopeless situation of having massive debt and no job.
But this is not even the most destructive effect of our consumer economy. The most destructive effect is that people are steadily losing their sense of personal liberty and personal responsibility. They completely and unthinkingly depend on government to provide for their retirement, cover their medical expenses, maintain their consumption habits throughout the business cycle and take care of them when they lose their job. In addition, they completely and unthinkingly depend on our profit-at-any-cost consumer economy for basics like food, water and electricity.
The effect of the total dependence on government is that people will be completely crushed when the system collapses and these promises made by our insolvent governments go up in smoke. And the effect of the total dependence on our consumer economy is that people get their sustenance from sources geared purely towards profit and not concerned at all with wellness and sustainability.
Pensioners stand to lose the most from our total dependence on government promises. Pension funds are mostly invested in government bonds (government debt) which is essentially a claim on the productive labor of future generations. If these future generations are unable to deliver on this claim (because of massive ecological overshoot and/or shifting age demographics), the government will have no more money to pay pensions. You can check the degree to which such promises have driven the USA to the stage of balance sheet insolvency (negative net assets) on the US National Debt Clock.
The biggest of the numerous problems created by our total dependence on our consumer economy is the epidemic of obesity and degenerative disease that is currently upon us. The richest billion spend more money on diet products than the poorest billion spend on food, but still obesity rates are rising rapidly across the world. The natural result is rapid increases in degenerative diseases like coronary heart disease and cancer which currently account for about 50% of all deaths in developed nations.
Aside from the terrible pain and suffering they bring, these diseases also have massive economic ramifications. The poor health of developed nations is the primary factor bankrupting their governments. The US government, for example, currently pays 36% of its tax revenues directly back in the form of Medicare and Medicaid and this number is still increasing rapidly. In fact, the fewer than 5% of people that live in the USA consume almost 40% of global healthcare spending.
Our childlike dependence on our broken systems is therefore not only ruining our personal health and financial security, it is also accelerating the continued degradation of these completely unsustainable systems. If we continue along these lines, a very painful collapse is a mathematical certainty.
But aside from personal health and finances, there is one more somewhat abstract measure that we have to consider: life satisfaction (happiness). Even though things are now starting to come apart at the seams, our inflationary debt-based economy has led to incredible increases in the quality of life for citizens in developed nations while it was still running happily on cheap fossil fuels, abundant planetary resources, infinite waste storage capacity and rapidly growing, youthful workforces. The really sad thing, however, is that all of this amazing progress has granted us absolutely no increases in happiness. In fact, the number of Americans reporting themselves to be “very happy” has been slowly declining over the past few decades despite massive gains in material affluence.
A very insightful trend on this topic can be established by plotting the number of happy life years (life expectancy multiplied by a life satisfaction score) against the average ecological footprint of various countries. Some very interesting work on this topic has been done by the developers of the Happy Planet Index and the basic trend (below) clearly shows that no additional happy years are gained beyond a certain, relatively modest level of consumption.
Psychologists have looked at this phenomenon and have attributed it to our rapidly increasing material desires. They have simply confirmed the thing we all know within our hearts; as soon as we get one thing, we see ten other things that we want just as badly. The more we buy, the more we want, and the natural effect is that we can never be content and can never attain true happiness. All the wise sages throughout history have warned us about this, but we have simply ignored their warnings and kept on consuming at ever increasing rates.
It is now becoming crystal clear that we have been destroying our planet, our economy, our society, our health and our personal finances in this unthinking quest to gain happiness through increased consumption. The data says that we have failed in this quest, implying that we have caused all of this destruction for nothing. I have this sinking feeling that we will not be fondly remembered by future generations…
This truly has become a moral issue on a global scale. Our unsustainable consumption habits might be threatening our own quality of life, but this is nothing in comparison to the threats on the lives of the poor and future generations. If we do not mend our ways, people will die in great numbers as our environment degrades and resources dwindle. 250 000 people are already dying every year from the effects of climate change, but this number is set to explode exponentially as we continue our fundamentally doomed attempts to consume ourselves out of the current recession.
The lives of billions of innocent poor people and billions of future human beings are in our hands. It is time that we, those lucky enough to have been born into the richest billion world citizens, start to take this massive responsibility seriously. You can start this process with a first look at the solutions.
[Please feel free to point out anything that can be improved on this page. It is very important that we arrive at a clear and concise understanding of the current state of our world.]