Lifestyle 3607
Photo by: gilles lougassi

It might be said that, whether conscious of it or not, everyone has a lifestyle. From this perspective, lifestyle refers simply to the defining characteristics or qualities of a particular way of life, be it of an individual, a nation, or an entire culture.

On the other hand, some argue that lifestyle is a Western concept, meaningful only to the citizens of affluent countries, not to those whose main concern is mere survival because of their absolute poverty. From this perspective, the concept of lifestyle applies only to variants of consumerism, a largely materialistic way of life that assumes: (1) that what one wants is entirely a matter of choice; (2) that almost all choices are within one's grasp; and (3) that consumer choices can and should be hierarchically ranked from the most to the least desirable, according to what the mass media and corporate enterprise decide is most worth having and doing. Underlying high-end consumerism is the belief that the most desirable lifestyle is dependent on having the most prestigious occupations, which are, in turn, associated with the highest incomes. The concept and its implications are closely connected to the values associated with extreme individualism, corporate capitalism, and an open market, preferably one that is global in its reach.

To critics, what is excluded from lifestyle is even more important than what is included. While most people would generally consider lifestyle to be a neutral or amoral concept, others, on looking more closely, see it as having an immoral side. Discussions of lifestyle generally exclude any thoughts of justice, respect for human rights, or fairness. In short, questions of "ways of being" are left out of the equation: We tend to forgo contemplation of what society has become and what it should be in pursuit of the favored lifestyle. This is innocent enough as long as people are truly ignorant of global circumstances, but it becomes increasingly inexcusable as the consequences of gross social inequity become better known and the income gap yawns ever wider.

Countries most closely identified with a consumer lifestyle include the United States (where shopping is the most popular leisure-time activity),

A consumer is selecting bulk foods. (M. Stone, U.S. EPA. Reproduced by permission.)
A consumer is selecting bulk foods. (
M. Stone, U.S. EPA. Reproduced by permission.

Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and a few others where post-Enlightenment "scientific materialism" has taken hold as the dominant way of seeing the world. In these generally democratic countries, the economy functions more or less according to the laws of supply and demand—if people buy a lot of some good or service, then private businesses organize to produce as much of that good as they can and still make a profit (keeping in mind that at least some of the demand may be stimulated by advertising in the first place). People spend their money as they see fit with little interference by governments. As a result, the economy produces what is wanted by citizens who have the money to pay rather than what might be needed by impoverished members of society who cannot "vote" in the marketplace. In the end, the citizens of free-market countries have access to the most prodigious outpouring of manufactured goods and consumer services, both necessary and trivial, ever made available to members of the human species. Little wonder that in most market democracies many citizens seek social status and define their self-worth in terms of the quality and quantity of their personal possessions, particularly automobiles, houses and furnishings (especially home entertainment products), and clothes. Indeed, the accumulation of private goods is a defining characteristic of a consumer lifestyle. It is often remarked that even the average person in the world's wealthy consumer societies enjoys greater personal comfort and convenience, if not outright wealth, than European monarchs of only a few centuries ago.

Given its pervasiveness in the West, many people will be surprised to learn that the consumer society was, in effect, deliberately constructed. In the years following World War II, North America was endowed with great industrial overcapacity (war-time factories) and large numbers of underemployed workers (returning soldiers). At the same time, the general population, having endured the material deprivation of the Depression and subsequent wartime rationing, was quite used to living modestly. To break people of their habit of "underconsuming," American industry purposefully organized to encourage North America to become a throw-away society and embrace a consuming way of life. In 1955, retail analyst Victor Lebow argued that Americans should make consumption their way of life. He suggested that if they succeeded in making the buying and use of goods into a kind of ritual, they would find spiritual satisfaction and ego gratification in consumption. His point was that to keep the economy going things had to be consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate. Today, a multibillion dollar advertising industry is still dedicated, in part, to creating needs that some new or improved product claims to meet.

Technology has also played a major role in helping industry to persuade people that material goods will help to fill the spiritual void that gnaws at the heart of techno-industrial society. For example, television has so successfully sold conspicuous consumption that the world consumed as many goods and services between 1950 (when commercial television was launched) and the mid-1990s as had all previous generations combined. For all that, a growing number of studies show that there is no correlation—indeed, there may even be a negative correlation—between growing incomes and subjective measures of "happiness" in the world's richest countries. It turns out that money really does not buy happiness.

The Pollution Connection

The promotion of consumerism, however it is portrayed in the media, leads to increasing pollution, resource scarcity, biotic impoverishment, and other forms of environmental degradation all over the world. Moreover, while a quarter of humanity enjoys the benefits of material plenty, the negative impacts of economic growth contribute to the loss of health and life among the poor in every country.

The economic production process often creates a vastly larger mass of waste than useful product. The packaging, distribution, use, and consumption of the product produce still more waste. Waste becomes pollution when the level of contamination impairs the aesthetic quality or productive capacity of the atmosphere, water, soil, or landscape; that is, when ecosystems are significantly damaged. Of course, as members of a human-centered, materialistic society, we tend to pay the most attention to pollution when it affects our own health or the health of other commercially valuable species. However they are perceived, waste and pollution are the inevitable and sometimes pernicious by-products of a consumer society, and the consumer lifestyle is spreading around the globe.

It is of little comfort that despite the best efforts of scientists, engineers, and technological optimists, progress in solving our waste and pollution problems has been decidedly erratic even in the world's most "advanced" economies. For example, studies show that although a greater number of people recycle, more waste than ever is also being hauled to landfills and incinerated. Often seeming improvements in one problem area are wiped out by worsening conditions in another—waste simply has to go somewhere. In 2002, the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an agency created under the North American Free Trade Agreement, reported in Taking Stock (its sixth annual study on pollution in Canada and the United States) that the total amount of toxic releases and transfers fell by three percent between 1995 and 1999. This slight decline was partially attributable to a 25-percent reduction in air emissions by the manufacturing sector. (It is probably also the result of economic restructuring, including the migration of some polluting industries or activities to developing countries.) However, reduced air pollution was offset by a 25-percent jump in on-site releases to land, a 35-percent surge in off-site releases—mainly to landfills, and a 26-percent rise in the waste dumped into lakes, rivers, and streams. Almost 3.4 million tons of toxic chemical waste were produced in 1999, roughly one million tons of that released on-site into the air. Almost 8 percent of total releases included chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive problems.

The following year, Taking Stock reported a continuing improvement overall—the reduction in industrial releases and transfers of chemicals in North America reached five percent in the six years from 1995 to 2000. However, there was a significant increase in toxic discharges among smaller manufacturing firms. A group of fifteen thousand industrial facilities across North America released and transferred 32 percent more toxic chemicals from 1998 to 2000. These facilities, with chemical releases and transfers up to 110 tons, represent the majority of polluters in Canada and the United States. Victor Shantora, acting executive director for the CEC, noted that "The small 'p' polluter might not grab the same headlines as a large power plant or chemical manufacturer, but their effect is being felt throughout the North American environment" (CEC 2003b). In Canada, these small 'p' polluters registered a 66-percent increase in chemical releases and transfers. In the United States, the same group recorded an increase of 29 percent.

Overall, wealthy industrial countries like the United States and Canada are responsible for more than 90 percent of the 350 million metric tons of hazardous waste produced globally each year. Approximately 65 percent of the world's economic production, consumption, and pollution is associated with cities in rich countries.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) describes the general problem of waste production in consumer economies in a particularly telling report, The Weight of Nations, released in 2000. This report documents the flow of certain materials through five of the world's most advanced, efficient, and wealthy industrial economies—Austria, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United States—over a twenty-year period up to 1996. The WRI analysis shows that, despite successful waste-reduction measures for some contaminants, significant improvements in the efficiency of material use and a slight reduction in resource throughput per unit of gross domestic product (GDP), both gross and per capita processed output (solid, liquid, and gaseous wastes) generally increased; the extraction and use of fossil energy resources dominated waste flows in all countries examined; and except in Germany, carbon dioxide emissions rose in both total and per capita terms in all countries studied (the data on Germany were distorted by unification and by that nation's one-time shift from coal to other more efficient hydrocarbon fuels).

These results may come as a surprise to those who believe that increased economic efficiency and resource productivity (technological efficiency),

Per Capita Eco-Footprints of selected Countries, 1997. (
M. Stone, U.S. EPA. Reproduced by permission.
combined with the shift to more "knowledge-based" sources of wealth creation, would significantly "decouple" the economy from nature. On the contrary, The Weight of Nations concludes unambiguously that the resource savings from efficiency gains and economic restructuring have been negated by population growth, growing consumption, and increasing waste output. Moreover, The Weight of Nations shows that despite the growing economic role of high-end services and other knowledge-based activities, modern industrial economies are carbon-based economies driven by fossil fuel; their predominant waste-generating activity is burning material.

The WRI study might actually be optimistic because it apparently examined only the energy and materials flows through the domestic economies of the countries studied. One may then ask how the data on resource consumption and waste generation would be affected if the calculations were corrected for trade flows. Does the embodied energy and material content of imported manufactured goods exceed that of exports? If so, the reduction in material consumption suggested by the modest decoupling of GDP growth from domestic energy and material use may be exaggerated.

Comparative Ecological Footprints

Ecological footprint analysis (EFA) provides another way to understand the problem of material throughputs in the modern world. The ecological footprint of a specified population may be defined as the area of productive land and water ecosystems required, on a continuous basis, to produce the resources that the population consumes and to assimilate its wastes, wherever on Earth the relevant land/water is located. Because of trade and natural flows, portions of any modern nation's eco-footprint are scattered all over the world.

Since eco-footprint estimates are based on the resource use and waste generation associated with final consumption by study populations, they provide a way to compare the ecological impacts of differing lifestyles. Recent national eco-footprint estimates underscore the fact that high-income countries—including the most technologically efficient economies examined in the WRI study—are the most material-intensive and polluting economies on Earth on a per capita basis. The bar graph shows the per capita ecological footprints (EFs) of a selection of countries across the income spectrum, from among the richest to the poorest on Earth. To facilitate comparison, the EFs are reported in hectares at world average productivity (data drawn from WWF 2002).

Note the enormous disparity between high-income "northern" countries and the poorer developing countries of the south. North Americans and Europeans typically consume ten to twenty or more times as much per capita of various resources as do the impoverished citizens of the poorest countries such as the people of Bangladesh and Sierra Leone; the wealthy therefore impose a correspondingly massive pollution load on the world's ecosystems.

Because of the finite volume of "ecological space" on Earth, it would not be possible to raise the entire world population to North American or western European material standards on a sustainable basis using prevailing technologies. The total eco-footprints of many densely populated high-income countries are already considerably larger than their domestic territories. Indeed, the world average eco-footprint is about 2.3 ha while there are fewer than 2 ha of productive land and water on Earth. Although the basic economic needs of a billion people have not yet been met, the world population has already overshot global carrying capacity. Humans are living and growing, in part, by depleting the biophysical resource base of the planet.

There can be little doubt that political factors help to maintain the disparity between high-income and developing countries. For example, the structural adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as a condition for development loans force borrowing countries to lower their standards of living and to export more minerals, timber, and food both to pay down their loans and to purchase imports from high-income countries. However, in the increasingly open global marketplace, developing countries must compete with each other and with first world subsidies for first world markets. This forces down the prices for developing countries' commodity exports in relation to the prices of the manufactured goods and services they must import. According to economist J.W. Smith, current terms of trade create a relative price difference that is even more effective than colonialism in appropriating the natural resources and in exploiting the cheap labor of less-developed countries. Remarkably, while developed countries claim to be financing the developing countries, the poor countries are actually financing the rich through low pay for equally productive labor, investment in commodity production for the wealthy world, and other dimensions of unequal trade.

Most significantly, many observe that the terms of trade and structural adjustments forced on third world countries are quite opposite to the policies under which the wealthy nations developed. This suggests that the power brokers of the developed countries know exactly what they are doing. Critics such as Smith claim that their grand strategy is to impose unequal trades on the world so as to lay claim to the natural wealth and labor of weaker nations. Intentional or not, the strategy is clearly effective: In the 1960s only $3 flowed north for every dollar flowing south; by the late 1990s the ratio was seven to one.

It is worth emphasizing here the extent to which wealthy industrialized countries are dependent on cheap commodities, particularly low-cost fossil fuel, to maintain their consumer economies. This reality is becoming an increasing strain on geopolitical stability. For example, both our highly productive intensive agriculture and almost all forms of transportation are directly or indirectly petroleum based. This dependence has, in turn, led to instances of aggression to control oil-producing countries thus assuring ready access to critical fuel supplies. (To some oil is certainly one of the motivating factors implicated in the 2003 war on Iraq.) It also encourages injustice, violations of human rights, and ecological degradation in order to extract oil as cheaply as possible. A clear example of this is the alleged genocide and ecocide committed by Royal Dutch Shell Oil in Ogoniland, Nigeria, a case that has been widely reported and is on trial in U.S. courts under the Alien Torts Claims Act (ATCA).

Although such gross human rights violations are particularly egregious, even normal day-to-day business activities that promote consumerism and the ever-expanding eco-footprints of wealthy consumers can be interpreted as a form of "institutionalized violence" if we continue these practices in full knowledge of the distant social and ecological consequences.


Worldwide, the urban poor tend to live in neglected neighborhoods, enduring pollution, waste dumping, and ill health, but lacking the political influence to effect improvements. Indeed, since the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, the urban poor, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, have had neither the resources to avoid, nor the power to control, noxious hazards in the workplace or in their homes. These are the people who have borne the greatest ecological costs of two centuries of continuous material growth. Today, the consumer lifestyle of the world's wealthy elite imposes an unprecedented burden of pollution, ecological disintegrity, and global climate change on the world. The costs of this burden are paid most heavily by the most vulnerable members of the human family: the poor and people of color.

Indeed, some see an intensifying pattern of "eco-apartheid" throughout the world. Extreme examples of city-level environmental distress are found both in the industrial cities of the former socialist and communist economies and in middle- and low-income megacities in the developing world. Certainly, the urban environmental hazards causing the most ill health are those found in the impoverished homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces located principally in the poorer countries of the Southern Hemisphere.

The problem, however, is hardly confined to second and third world cities. Even in the United States, the geographic distribution of air pollution, contaminated waters and fish, toxic waste sites, and landfills, correlates strongly with the distribution of both racial minorities and poverty. People have therefore begun to speak passionately of the need to ensure environmental justice for environmentally beleaguered communities. Some analysts emphasize that the correlation between chronic exposure to ecological hazards and race is much stronger than that between exposure and income poverty. A National Wildlife Federation review of sixty-four studies of environmental inequity found sixty-three cases of disparity by race or income but race proved to be the more important factor. Similarly, the Argonne National Laboratory found that of U.S. population, 33 percent of whites, 50 percent of African-Americans, and 60 percent of Hispanics live in the 136 counties in which two or more air pollutants exceed standards.

To make matters worse, the evidence is clear that even in these enlightened modern times, rich neighborhoods are often better served by environmental law and regulatory agencies than are less advantaged ones. It seems that if a community is poor or inhabited largely by racial minorities, it will likely receive less protection than a community that is affluent or white. In his article "Decision Making," Robert Bullard has argued that:

. . . the current environmental protection paradigm has institutionalized unequal enforcement, traded human health for profit, placed the burden of proof on the "victims" rather than on the pollution industry, legitimated human exposure to harmful substances, promoted "risky" technologies such as incinerators, exploited the vulnerability of economically and politically disenfranchised communities, subsidized ecological destruction, created an industry around risk assessment, delayed cleanup actions, and failed to develop pollution prevention as the overarching and dominant strategy. (p. 3)

It seems that in the United States economic privilege and power not only insulate the wealthy from the worst effects of ecological degradation, but also confer additional protection under the law.

Personal Responsibility

While overconsumption, particularly in northern rich countries, is a major contributor to accelerating human-induced global change, the situation is not totally hopeless. Human beings are consumers by nature—we have to consume to survive—but informed consumers can learn to consume responsibly. What, then, can the individual do to reduce his or her personal "load" on nature? The fact is that making careful consumer choices can greatly reduce the negative impacts of one's personal lifestyle. For example, the most ecologically harmful consumer activities are associated with fuel-guzzling private automobiles and light trucks, diets rich in industrially produced meat, poultry and other products of intensive agriculture, home heating and cooling (including water heating), modern appliances, home construction and household water/sewage. Personal transportation, food, and household operations alone account for between 59 and 80 percent of total household environmental impact in several categories of pollution and environmental damage (see table).

Deciding to take public transportation, walk, or bicycle (generally reducing automobile dependence) in the city, switching to a mostly organic low-meat diet, living in a modestly scaled house or apartment and ensuring that it is adequately insulated, and using only essential, certified high-efficiency appliances are some of the best ways for residents of high-income countries

Environmental Impacts Per Household

  Climate Change Air Pollution   Water Pollution   Habitat Alteration
SOURCE: Brower, M., and Leon, W. (1999). The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Activity Greenhouse gases Common Toxic Common Toxic Water use Land use
Transportation 32% 28% 51% 7% 23% 2% 15%
Food 12 17 9 38 22 73 45
Household operations 35 32 20 21 14 11 4
Subtotal 80% 77% 80% 67% 59% 86% 64%

to shrink their personal ecological footprints. Consumers can also demand "fair trade" goods (such as coffee and other third world agricultural commodities) that ensure adequate returns to peasant producers in the developing world.

Unfortunately, shifting consumer preferences alone will not create a green and fair economy. For example, the unfettered market is unlikely to provide the financial incentives that are needed to stimulate the private sector to take advantage of technologies that already exist and that could be used to increase resource productivity (efficiency) and conservation. Citizens everywhere should therefore also support their governments to undertake the ecological tax reforms (e.g., pollution charges and resource depletion taxes) necessary to move their economies into a more efficient conservation mode. No country can go it entirely alone. International cooperation in this endeavor is necessary to create and maintain a level economic playing field.

There are of course, more radical solutions. Increasing numbers of people are taking an additional step to reduce their load on the earth in the movement toward "voluntary simplicity." These individuals adopt less hectic and materially simpler lifestyles in an effort both to reduce their ecological footprints and to provide the psychological space needed to enrich their lives spiritually.



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Rees, W.E. (2002). "Globalization and Sustainability: Conflict or Convergence?" Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 22(4):249-268.

Rees, W.E., and Westra, L. (2003). "When Consumption Does Violence: Can There Be Sustainability and Environmental Justice in a Resource-Limited World?" Chapter 5 in Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World, edited by Julian Agyeman, Robert Bullard and Bob Evans. London: Earthscan and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Smith, J.W. (2000). Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle of the 21st Century. Armonk: NY: M.E. Sharpe.

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Wackernagel, M.; Onisto, L.; Bello, P.; Linares, A. C.; Falfán, I. S. L.; Garcia, J. M.; Guerrero, A. I. S.; and Guerrero, M. G. S. (1999). "National Natural Capital Accounting with the Ecological Footprint Concept." Ecological Economics, 29:375–390.

Westra, L. (l998). Living in Integrity. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield.

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Internet Resource

CEC. (2003b). "Latest News." Montreal: North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation. &ID=2529 .

William E. Rees and Laura Westra

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