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How the middle income choose to consume is decisive for our ecology

17 March 2011

Pedro Walpole, SJ

Consumption is not driven by the world’s population growth but by the availability of energy. Energy availability and consumption of a growing middle income level, which hardly existed 50 years ago, needs to be studied not just by marketing analysts, but by social analysts around the world for scenarios of where we might be going. Five points come together for action.

First, global markets are able to deliver to those who can pay for a world of technology and fashion, the freshest food, and the newest books. The greatest poverty is that of the lower income level with less than US$ 996 a year and who make up about a billion people. National Geographic in its March 20011 edition constructs the figures around the lower middle income at four billion people with US$ 996 to 3,945 a year.

These four billion people are the main block of the world’s population on the edge of the technological boom and entering urbanization at a fast rate. The other two million have annual incomes measured as below or about US$ 12,195. And at the tail end of this is two percent of the world population owning 50 percent of the wealth. The four billion middle-income group needs to understand its impact on the market and the world.

Second, this brings with it a carbon dioxide production rate that rages from one ton for the poorest, three to five tons per capita for the middle level income, and 13 tons per year for the high income. If we think of the growing purchasing power of the middle group expanding, we need to recognize this along with the carbon dioxide production level, unless there are changes.

Third, with the demonstrations and civil war in parts of Africa and the Arab world, the threatened nuclear plant in Japan due to the earthquake and tsunamis, there is a serious rethinking of energy consumption. China is expected to initiate energy conservation measures immediately.

In the recent financial crises, much was said of the uncontrolled banking speculation and lack of regulations. The excesses of land speculation and flagrant spending of those riding on virtual wealth put the economies of wealthy nations at risk and played out in full colours by the Celtic Tiger (the rapid economic growth of Ireland from 1995 to 2007). Such instability connected the financial world on one side and the physical world on the other and a new sense of connectedness and facet of globalization emerged – vulnerability.

Fourth, the Millennium Development Goals are not being achieved. National economies are looking out for the broader sustainability; alleviation of poverty is not gaining ground as a priority. The traditional process of government, which is economic growth with a trickle-down effect, is known for its inefficiency, and the trickle down usually dries up.

Governments have to go through crises, elections, legal changes, policy development and programming before it can get even to the most ineffective implementation. The flexibility to change is actually with the individual who has the spending power and choice to act and encourage a shift in how to spend. The spending class now knows it must show greater consideration. And so the idea of consumption goals is emerging.

Fifth, the Millennium Consumption Goals or MCGs are now called for to draw the middle and rich income levels to curb their climate-damaging consumption habits. Professor Mohan Munasinghe is not a disgruntled objector to the global economic but is vice-chair of the Geneva-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore. He professes the wisdom of change in the purchasing power of the rich.

The writing is on the wall and the rich, though they don’t have to face the hungry and vulnerable masses of the world, know they are damaging the climate, which keeps the world spinning on a more fundamental level than the economy. The newly emerging middle income cannot continue to purchase in a similar consumptive manner without hastening global ill health and vulnerability.

We don’t have to wait for the MCGs to be better informed and active. Today we need to use all human means to understand the ecological systems of the Earth, the local environments, and their sustainability. We are challenged to engage with greater care and develop organizational systems and processes that centre on ecological systems. We are called to renew our sense of identity as we transform our relations with the environment, adjust the ecological footprint of our consumption, learn to listen to others, and give deeper meaning to life.

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2 Responses to How the middle income choose to consume is decisive for our ecology

  1. David Birchall SJ on 29 March 2011 at 4:25 pm

    The Celtic tiger seems to be lasting longer than expected: 2997 in the English version and 20,077 en espanol!

  2. Michael Hainz SJ on 18 March 2011 at 10:26 pm

    A very sober, thorough analysis. Let’s go on this way, deepen it and make it understandle for much more people in the North.

    Add please: What action should follow? Your private approach is one side, okay, but a real political one is missing. We need a new global deal on ecology & distribution of wealth.
    Our Munich social institute has made a project on this. The English volume will be published soon.
    Let us as Jesuits be more prophetical and radical – exactly in the line which you proposed.

    Thanks a lot

    Michael Hainz SJ, Munich/Cracow

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