Since 1950, the richest 20% of the world's population has increased its per capita consumption of meat and timber two-fold, its car ownership four-fold and its use of plastics five-fold. The poorest 20% has increased its consumption hardly at all.
-- National Academy of Sciences, "Towards Sustainable Consumption".

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

"How much is enough?" Critics say that very question is indicative of a middle to middle-upper class movement. Indeed, many of our materially poor neighbors are not afforded the leisure of grappling with "How much is enough?" Families struggling to obtain basic food and shelter, for instance, can be sure that more is better.

Consider the poorest 20% of the world's population that consumes just 1.3% of the earth's goods and services.(1) They don't have the luxury of deciding whether to upgrade their PCs. But many North Americans, the vast majority of whom fall in the world's wealthiest 20% (the 20% that consumes 86% of global goods and services), also consider ourselves deprived of various material "necessities" and comforts.(2) Our consumer culture assures us that each of us deserves the most we can get. More is better but it's never enough. Our "stuff' determines our status and we tend to compare our status to that of the ultra-wealthy, not the poor.

But can't we help the world's poor by spending lots of money and turbo-charging the economy? After all, traditional economists say a "rising tide lifts all boats." Unfortunately, the late 20th century experience has proved otherwise. While those of us on the bountiful side of the wealth gap keep the GDP booming with record car, home, and "stuff' sales, 35 million sub-poverty line Americans still yearn for a livable wage in their pocket and a healthy dinner on their table.(3) The global poor has similarly seen minimal change in their levels of consumption.

The problem, explain environmental economists, lies in traditional economists' failure to recognize limits. The earth does not hold endless stores of natural resources, nor is it capable of absorbing limitless levels of pollution. Accordingly, it would be physically impossible for everyone currently on earth to live the lifestyle of the average American that would require the resources and absorptive capacities of four additional planets.(4)

So what will we do when we have 10 billion global neighbors, instead of 6 billion?(5) New technology and improved efficiency can certainly help, but that has limits too.(6) We need a cultural shift.

The U.S. is currently dominated by a commercial culture loaded with messages to drive this, drink that, eat these, wear those, listen to this, watch that, and buy it all!(7)

Bombarded, it’s easy to fall in the trap of believing that what matters most is "stuff." Few of us intend to drain the planet's dwindling resources, overwhelm its absorptive capacities, or perpetuate sweatshop labor, but our collective buying habits bear those very consequences.

Our culture, measuring success and personal worth in terms of material possessions, is especially cruel to the poor. Madison Avenue preys on low-income communities, saying success and status are only a purchase away. Millions of Americans, otherwise financially unable to play the shopping game, turn to plastic as a means to "fit in." Our savings rate has dipped into negative territory (since October 1998 Americans have spent more than they've earned) while credit card debt and personal bankruptcies are at all time highs.(8) Children, often self-conscious to begin with, are another popular target for advertising predators.(9) Some kids resort to violence, and even murder, to obtain the expensive "in" jacket or shoes.

Where is the hope in all of this? Human compassion has the potential to go a long way. It would take $40 billion annually to achieve and maintain basic education, basic health care, reproductive health care for women, adequate food, clean water, and safe sewers for all the world's needy. In 1997, Americans alone gave over $145 billion in charitable donations.(10)

There's plenty we can do. As consumers we can shop responsibly, rather than impulsively or conspicuously. We can also band together and demand durable, eco-friendly products made by workers earning a livable wage. As voters we can support policies that benefit underrepresented constituencies, both today's materially poor as well as the future generations that will inherit our land, air, and water.(11)

So how much is enough? This is an economical, ecological, and moral question. And it has no simple answer. But until every person on the planet can look every other person in the eye and say, "Yes, I have enough," it must continue to be asked.


These questions of distribution and consumption are nothing new - most religious and spiritual traditions have focussed on them for centuries. Want to read more? Then continue on to the puzzle tour’s Religion and Spirituality piece.


  1. United Nations Human Development Report, 1998.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Statistic from United States Census Bureau. Check out the Government Policy and Economics puzzle piece for more information on GDP and other indicators.
  4. Wackernagel etal., "National Natural Capital Accounting with the Ecological Footprint Concept" Ecological Economics June, 1999. See the Global Environment and International puzzle pieces for more information on this topic.
  5. Visit the Population and Consumption puzzle piece.
  6. Check out the Technology/Efficiency puzzle piece.
  7. See the Commercial Culture puzzle piece or the Kids and Commercialism campaign page and its free "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture" brochure.
  8. Visit the Money/Personal Finance puzzle piece.
  9. See the Kids and Commercialism campaign page and its free "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture" brochure.
  10. United Nations Human Development Report, 1998.
  11. See the Home and Family piece for responsible consumption tips. For a discussion of policy options, click on the Government Policy and Economics puzzle piece.

Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD www.newdream.org
Comments and Questions: newdream@newdream.org