Columnist: A Billion New Consumers: Is the World Ready?

September 9, 2012

By Neal Peirce

Is all economic growth always a good thing?

The McKinsey Global Institute is now predicting an expansion of the world's "consuming class" -- 1 billion new middle-class city residents whose demand will fuel astronomic expansion in commerce, ports, building and vehicle sales, between now and 2024.

The U.S. political season is peppered with calls for added economic growth, even belittling of candidates who take global climate change seriously and talk of more efficient ways to increase energy demand.

When the world's nations assembled in Rio de Janeiro for the "Rio plus 20" environmental conference this summer, official announcements skirted any case to restrain global economic expansion.

But read the detailed projections of the new McKinsey report, with its listing of demands that an added billion consumers will place on the global environment, and complacency seems like whistling past the graveyard.

The demands of this new consumer group -- biggest in sheer numbers from China and India -- will force a two-and-a-half-times expansion of world ports for container ships carrying new waves of goods -- dishwashers to televisions, shoes to bottled water.

New buildings will cost $80 trillion over 15 years, with added residential floor space alone 90 percent of today's worldwide stock. China and South Asia are projected to build 34,000 square kilometers of residential floor space, nearly equivalent to the entire land area of the Netherlands.

Another superlative -- automobiles, with developing-world nations triggering a literal doubling of the world fleet, to 1.7 billion by 2030. The inevitable result: massive new demand for metals and petroleum, clogged roadways, escalating injuries and deaths.

Is this our concept of sustainable growth for our planet? Are we ready to careen down this roadway of exploding consumer demands without a serious global conversation about its implications?

There were pieces of good news flowing from Rio plus 20, notes Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who monitored the process closely. A top example: agreement to provide more than $175 billion for sustainable transport in developing countries, signed on by the World Bank and development banks in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Better transport for broad swaths of the population and improving road safety (crucial for pedestrians) should be among the top global goals -- a far cry from the super-roads, mostly helpful to affluent classes, being built in many cities.

But Scherr reports a major disappointment, underscored in Rio: "The political leadership of the planet simply does not recognize that there are limits -- that we are bumping up against the capacity of the planet to meet our needs." He doesn't disagree with the Rio delegates' official declaration on the issue of poverty and the big goal to eradicate it. "But," adds Scherr, today's serious issue of "planetary strain was simply not recognized."

Four decades ago, notes Scherr, American officials and thought leaders rejected the case -- advanced by the Club of Rome and others -- that the world was consuming resources at an unsustainable level. But, adds Scherr: "40 years later, we're seeing the ability of the planet to endlessly absorb our pollution is simply not there."

Countless surveys -- citing carbon-triggered global warming but also shrinking forests, species loss, minerals depletion, fisheries collapse and more -- support his contention. According to a group known as the Global Footprint Network, "humanity is simply using more than the planet can provide." Globally, the group estimates, it would take one and a half Earths to replenish current consumption. If the entire Earth consumed resources at the U.S. rate, more than four planets would be required.

A typical culprit, aggravated by global middle class expansion and demand, is air conditioning. The United States is the globe's most gluttonous user by far. But worldwide demand, especially in rapidly expanding tropical cities, is accelerating rapidly. Cooling has been described as "the craze" in India, where air conditioning sales are rising 20 percent a year and an electrical grid failure in July left 600 million people without power.

But crying Cassandra isn't the answer, contends Anjali Jaiswal, an attorney with NRDC's international program. "Super-efficient" air conditioners for India's climate, energy-efficiency codes for new buildings and other technologies can help blunt the massive energy shortage problem, she argues: "If some 80 percent of India's infrastructure for 2030 has to be built or rebuilt, it's a singular opportunity -- to do it right, with efficiency from the start."

But other figures Jaiswal cites -- India's projected need to increase its power generation capacity from 160 gigawatts currently to 600 gigawatts just by 2020, for example -- raise deeply disturbing environmental concerns.

Of course: Who are Americans to complain? We literally invented the global high-demand middle-class lifestyle. In movies and TV shows, we pushed the takeoff of demand worldwide. Which raises the hard question: Will we curb our own demand? Will we be there for the hard landing too?

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necesssarily those of the National League of Cities.