Would imitate Mumbai Shanghai

The transnational consumer class

By Wolfgang Sachs and Tilman Santarius

Published as: Sachs, Wolfgang / Santarius, Tilman: The transnational consumer class. In: Engelhardt, Marc / Steigenberger, Markus (Hrsg.): Konsum. Globalization. Environment. McPlanet.com - The book for the second congress of Attac, BUND and Greenpeace in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. Berlin, 2005.

It was in 1928 that Mohandas Gandhi formulated one of those intuitions that made his thinking protrude into the 21st century. He wrote: “God forbids India ever to industrialize along the lines of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) keeps the world in chains today. If an entire nation with 300 million inhabitants relies on similar economic exploitation, the world would be devoured as if by a plague of locusts. ”Almost 80 years later, this statement has lost none of its relevance. On the contrary, it has gained in weight because now, instead of 300 million, but 1000 million are imitating England. Gandhi sensed that the dignity of India could not be restored to the economic level of England, and neither could the dignity of China or Indonesia. A multiplication of England would result in a multiplication of colonial pillage, to the extent that the life of the planet would be damaged. The bio-physical limits to the spread of industrial civilization on the planet, which have become recognizable over the past thirty years, have impressively confirmed Gandhi's hunch.

The dilemma of catching up

Therein lies the dilemma of the current race to catch up, especially in Asia. It may be controversial whether the leaps in growth in China and India bring more social equality internationally and less poverty nationally, but it is certain that they are driving the wear and tear of the biosphere. In absolute terms, China has now risen to become the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world after the USA, as well as the second largest oil importer. In addition to the strain on global resource systems, the pressure on local habitats is even more noticeable: cities that are sick with air, shrinking arable land, dwindling water resources are the lightning effects of an approaching natural crisis. The annual economic costs of environmental damage in the wake of economic growth were estimated to be around 13 percent of Chinese domestic product in the 1990s (Smil / Mao 1998). Year after year the loss of nature would then be greater than the increase in economic product! It is true that China stands out for the size of its population; but in principle there are similar trends in Brazil, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Indonesia and other emerging economies. Given the composition and efficiency of traditional economic growth, the exit from poverty and powerlessness leads straight to the entry into overuse and over-exploitation. There is more income to be expected, but in reality only a larger share of the predatory economy.

With all the attention paid to the rise of the emerging economies, especially China and India, it cannot go unnoticed that an economic upswing hardly ever affects the whole country and the whole population. As a rule, it focuses on central city regions and more or less extensive industrial zones. It's not a coincidence, it's part of the system. Under the conditions of a transnational division of labor, it is not countries that take part in global competition, nor do their populations as a whole, but only certain places and zones with part of the population, and only as long as the conditions of competition allow it (Scholz 2002). Because the desired division of labor has fanned out far beyond national borders and connects places scattered around the world with one another. Countless production chains criss-cross the global space. Transport and communication technology make it possible to coordinate and control spatially spanned production networks. Against this background, the success of the emerging countries cannot be read as an upswing of nations, but as an upswing in regional areas or even just individual locations that have favorable characteristics for global investors. The growth regions are to be seen primarily as nodes of global production networks and not as pioneers of an economy. The fact that Shanghai and Shenzhen are in China, or Bombay and Bangalore in India, is of secondary importance in this perspective; In their flourishing parts they are above all locations for processes of capital formation that transcend borders.

Polarization in resource consumption

What separates the better off from the have-nots in developing countries is their consumption of resources, especially the type of energy they consume. The rich rely on very different sources of energy than the poor. These collect brushwood, branches or dry manure; only in urban areas do they occasionally have access to petroleum or electricity. The wealthy are completely different: They use fuel and electricity. In this way, the various energy sources can be arranged on an energy ladder, depending on the income level of households (Goldemberg 2000). For cooking purposes, for example, wood, dung and other biomass are found on the lower levels of the ladder, charcoal, coal and kerosene on the middle level, and electricity, liquefied gas and petrol on the higher levels. The energy ladder corresponds to the social stratification in many countries in the south.

In summary, members of the upper middle class in the southern countries use as much energy as their peers in many industrialized countries. The unequal distribution of energy consumption, as it exists at the world level between industrialized and developing countries, is repeated in a comparable spread in the developing countries themselves between the consumer class and the majority of the population. However, the average consumption of the upper middle class in developing countries is generally lower than in developed countries. Nevertheless, after the expansion of the consumer classes in the north, especially in the years 1950-1990, a more or less large consumer class is now forming in the emerging countries, which is able to secure a far larger share of natural resources than the majority of the population .

After all, even the casual visitor in the metropolises of the south will notice the neighborhoods of affluence: glittering office towers, shopping galleries with their luxury boutiques, secluded residential areas with villas in manicured gardens, not to mention the stream of Mitsubishi and Mercedes along the carts and hawkers . Sandton in Johannesburg, Alphaville in Sao Paulo, Ksour in Marrakech or Sukhumvit in Bangkok are islands of wealth amid a sea of ​​simple houses and poor huts. The spatial fragmentation of cities makes the social polarization clear; it demonstrates how much the setting classes have moved away from the common people in their lifestyle.

The consumer class - how big and where?

How big is the consumer class in each country? In order to determine its rough statistical profile, an income of US $ 7,000 (in purchasing power parity) per capita per year is used as the threshold for belonging to the consumer class. After all, this sum roughly corresponds to the official poverty line in Western Europe, so that the transnational consumer class can be described as a group with at least an income from the lower middle class in Western Europe. With this approach, Matthew Bentley calculated 816 million new consumers (Bentley 2003). They join the 912 million established consumers in the industrialized countries, who, however, have on average a much higher income. If one spans a wide network and defines the consumer class on this purchasing power level, then in 2000 it already comprised 1.7 billion people, more than a quarter of the world population.

Figure 1 shows a compilation of the countries with the highest number of new consumers at the income threshold of US $ 7,000. China and India alone account for more than 20 percent of the global consumer class. With a total of 362 million people, the consumer class in these two countries is larger than that in the whole of Western Europe, albeit with a considerably lower average income. The share of the consumer class in the population is 19 percent in China, 33 percent in Brazil and 43 percent in Russia (Bentley 2003; Gardner et al. 2004, 44). If you keep in mind that their share in Western Europe is 89 percent, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to imagine what growth potential there is here, at least according to the figures. And at the same time it becomes clear how in times of globalization more than one in ten people in the north are excluded from the prosperity of the transnational consumer class.

The transnational consumer class is roughly half based in the south and half in the north. It includes those groups who, despite their different skin color, have the same lifestyle everywhere: They live less and less in a way that is typical of the country, but are more and more similar to the same classes in other nations in terms of models and behavior. The Caracas family of lawyers has in many ways more in common with an entrepreneurial family in Beijing than any of them have with their mountain compatriots. In other words, they are not “Venezuelan” or “Chinese”, but rather the local representatives of a transnational consumer class. They shop in similar shopping centers, buy high-tech electronics, watch similar films and TV series, turn into tourists every now and then, and have the crucial medium of approximation: money. They are part of a transnational economic complex that is now developing its sales markets on a global scale. It's Nokia providing them with cell phones everywhere, and Toyota with cars, Sony with televisions, Siemens with fridges, Burger King with quick bites, and Time Warner with videos. Advertising and credit pave the way. Supply and demand reinforce each other: on the one hand, it is mainly transnational companies that push consumption-intensive lifestyles into the market, and on the other hand, it is the people who have made money who are eager for a higher standard of living. As a result, both of these things mean that this expansion enormously increases the weight with which the global economy weighs on the biosphere.

Prosperity incapable of justice

There are primarily three classes of consumer goods that drive up energy, material and space consumption in the consumer class: meat consumption, electrical appliances and car ownership (Myers / Kent 2003). Meat production from animal fattening typically requires grain, and grain requires arable land and water. From 1990 to 2000 alone, the amount of grain fed to cattle increased by 31 percent in China, by 52 percent in Malaysia and by 63 percent in Indonesia (Myers / Kent 2003). The water consumption for irrigation of the types of grain used in animal fattening eats up surface waters and groundwater; up to 1000 tons of water are required to produce one ton of grain and 16,000 tons of water are required for one ton of beef (Hoekstra 2003). Not infrequently, when arable land and water become scarce, the demand for grain is directed towards the world market and drives up food prices to the detriment of poorer countries; after all, the new consumer countries have already achieved a share of almost 40 percent of global grain imports. Next: The whole range of electrical appliances - from refrigerators to air conditioning, from washing machines to televisions, from microwaves to computers - is increasing the consumption of electricity, usually generated with fossil fuels. In 2002, 1.12 billion households, in which around three quarters of the world's population live, had at least one television set (Gardner et al. 2004, 47). Of them, 31 percent can connect to the global cycle of fabricated images by means of a cable connection and thus get to know the goods they are striving for. And finally the car. While the number of passenger cars in the new consumer countries was 62 million in 1990, it rose to 117 million by 2000 and thus reached a share of 21 percent of the global fleet. If the growth rates of the 1990s continue, the number of cars should almost double again by 2010. No wonder that pretty much all the cities with the highest levels of air pollution in the world are in the emerging countries, which are now responsible for two fifths of global CO2 emissions. It shows that the way of life in the north is spreading across the globe in the consumption of resources, and its branches in the south are now competing with their role models for the global environment.

Against this background, it is high time to put the modern industrial prosperity model to the test. An economic development of the conventional style, which would like to bring a growing world population as a whole a western standard of living, will not be sustainable from an ecological point of view. More justice in this world cannot be achieved at the level of consumption in the industrialized countries. The quantities of resources required for this are too large, too expensive and too destructive. For this reason, the kick-start of the emerging countries into industrial modernity is likely to lead to a further marginalization of the poor countries and zones and thus to global apartheid, but will also endanger them themselves. The noose is already tightening for dozens of peripheral countries because China, with its colossal demand, is pushing up world market prices for grain, crude oil and iron ore. Therefore, those who do not want to lose sight of the goal of creating a fairer and more just world than today will put those production and consumption patterns to the test to which the hopes of prosperity are currently attached. That is why advocating global justice from an ecological perspective means nothing less than reinventing the modern industrial prosperity model.

This text summarizes trains of thought from the book “Fair Future. Limited resources and global justice ”(Munich: C.H.Beck, 2005) together.


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Goldemberg, José (Ed.) (2000): World Energy Assessment: Energy and the Challenge of Sustainability. new York

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