International Consumption

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

Imagine what would happen if the "more is better" American dream became the world dream. Oops, too late, it’s already happened. McDonalds, Coke, and Baywatch have saturated the ends of the earth and America’s hyperconsumptive society is revered as the global role model.

Herbert Hoover’s American dream of "a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot" has become the world’s aspiration. Rapidly industrializing countries are consuming exponentially more cars, meat, and televisions (though even Hoover didn’t dream of the "boob tube"). In 1996, more new cars were sold in Asia than in Western Europe and North America combined.(1) From 1976 to 1996, China’s total red meat consumption quintupled from less than 8 million tons to 42 million tons per year. Despite these gains, its per capita beef consumption is still far below that of the U.S. If each Chinese consumed as much beef as the average American, the feedlots would need 343 million tons of grain – roughly the entire U.S. grain harvest.(2)

There’s one big catch to all this dreaming – scientists say the American dream will remain a global dream. That’s right, the American dream is just a gigantic neon mirage shimmering out over the less industrialized world. We would need the resources and absorptive capacities of four more earths for all six billion humans to live the lifestyle of the average American.(3) With 1.2 billion citizens, China would need an entire earth just for itself - even more than one earth for some resources, such as oil. Were the Chinese to consume as much oil per capita as their American counterparts, they would need 80 million barrels each day – more than the whole world now produces or is ever projected to produce.(4)

In addition to serving as the world’s unsustainable role model, the United States is directly driving polluting forms of development. The U.S. financed $23.2 billion worth of foreign oil, gas and coal projects from 1992 to 1998. Over their lifetimes, these projects will release 25.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide (the equivalent of total global CO2 output in 1996).(5)

The global pursuit of the American dream spells certain ecological catastrophe, but who are we to dissuade them? After all, our materially intensive lifestyle has been sustained largely through foreign natural resources and cheap labor. Can we really tell anyone not to pursue the American dream without first addressing our own lifestyles? We must dramatically reduce and shift our own patterns of consumption, then disseminate clean technology throughout the world. The stakes may be our global environment, but the issue is fundamentally one of justice and responsibility.


  1. The Councils of the Royal Society of London and National Academy of Sciences' joint statement "Toward Sustainable Consumption" 1997.
  2. Lester R. Brown and Christopher Flavin, "China’s Challenge to the United States and to the Earth" World Watch September/October, 1996.
  3. Wackernagel etal., "National Natural Capital Accounting with the Ecological Footprint Concept" Ecological Economics June, 1999.
  4. Lester R. Brown and Christopher Flavin, "China’s Challenge to the United States and to the Earth" World Watch September/October, 1996.
  5. Institute of Policy Studies and Friends of the Earth, "Business as Usual?" 1999.

Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD
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