Conspicuous Consumerism

conspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgNorwegian American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class.  Conspicuous consumption has been discussed in the context of addictive or narcissistic behaviors induced by consumerism, the desire for immediate gratification, and hedonic expectations. 

Our friend Jared Diamond recently wrote a piece in the NYT about American’s “Consumption Factor” (which is 32 times that of Kenya and 11 times China).  He writes: 

If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

So what is it that we are so conspicuously consuming?

Globally, the 20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures — the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%. More specifically, the richest fifth:

  • Consume 45% of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth 5%
  • Consume 58% of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4%
  • Have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5%
  • Consume 84% of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1%
  • Own 87% of the world’s vehicle fleet, the poorest fifth less than 1%

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States 8
Ice cream in Europe 11
Perfumes in Europe and the United States 12
Pet foods in Europe and the United States 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotics drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780

And compare that to what was estimated as additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Basic education for all 6
Water and sanitation for all 9
Reproductive health for all women 12
Basic health and nutrition 13

(Source: The state of human development, United National Development Report 1998, Chapter 1, p.37)
Other sources:
Data from the World Bank for 2003
http://www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/Consumption.asp

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