The End Of Consumerism
It's a widely known (sometimes it even seems like we're bragging) statistic that the developed world comprises roughly 20% of the world's population but uses 80% of it's resources, and the United states uses nearly 3 times the world average resource footprint per capita. When people talk about consumerism, this is it. Fortunately (or probably, unfortunately) the world supply of resources has been essay to come by up until now. Countries like those in the Mid-east and China needed Europe and Our influx of money more than they needed their own oil and labor, so it was fairly easy to purchase at the high rates we had grown accustomed to.
But in the last 10 years, the world has become a very different place. The Mideast has become increasingly reluctant to deal with the west, for religious and political reasons, which has done it's part to hamper oil supplies. But, at the same time, oil is of course being used up, and regardless of how much remains (depending on who you talk to, 50 to 1000 years worth. More on this later) oil is growing harder to recover at a rate which cannot meet demand, so the price is increasing. But so what? Gas gets a little more spendy, and you have to pay a few cents more for milk cartons... Except there's one more huge change that's just starting to hit.
China is joining the big boys. Five years ago, the biggest buzz word in investment and product development was "China". This golden land, which was so long a communist state which shunned the evils of consumer culture had over the years faded significantly in its resolve. If you were looking to get a product picked up in a market free from competition, China was your man. And the phenomenon has only grown since then. Long regarded as the "factory of the world", China was famous for its productivity. But this year, China is facing labor shortages. This stems from a variety of factors, but the main one seems to be a massive urbanization of rural populations from the countryside. With all these cityfolk to feed, prices for agricultural products are more than competitive with wages for labor in factories. Since much factory labor in China is provided by these farmers who migrate from the countryside, with more farmers staying back at their fields, there's just not enough labor to satisfy the need. And not enough labor means higher prices, which means we are less and less able to get away with making cheap products.
These new urbanites bring us back to why consumerism may be going down. All these city folk are fast adopting the same consumer tendencies that were once the sole province of western culture. This trend is evidenced by the dramatic increase in personal debt in the past 15 years. Debt which used to be a social stigma is now seen as a tool for purchasing. But now, with hundreds of millions of new consumers in the world marketplace, the demand for products at the rate we are accustomed will surely outstrip supply. And with all the new urbanites, the agriculture-fueled labor shortages will probably only increase.
The last part of the triple-punch that will take out consumerism as we know it is also due to this new urbanism. For the first time this year, China developed a significant taste for cars, and therefore gasoline and oil. China's energy needs are also growing exponentially in order to power its new cities. Again, this wouldn't be such a big deal if it weren't for the sheer size of the increase, and its timing. While it's a highly contested point, it is believed that world oil production is in the process of peaking. It is estimated that between 2000 and 2020, we will reach a point where we will never be able to take oil out of the ground as fast as we are at that moment. Take a look at petroleum consultant Jack Zagar's presentation for a more in-depth descriptin of the situation. Since oil production will be fixed, we will no longer be able to drive growth by tapping greater reserves of oil-energy, like the U.S.A. did in the 1940s and 1950s. Even more important, to designers, will be the declining availability of petrochemical plastics for products. And since China has just become such a big consumer of manufactured goods, that supply will be decreasing even faster.
Lets face it. We've dug ourselves quite a hole, and we won't get out of it just by saying "Don't use plastic in your designs anymore." In order to avoid completely running out of petro-plastics, we'll need to look at a few options:
We don't mean to sound scary or scared. We don't have any apocalyptic visions of the future. We're not going to wake up in a world where we no longer need beautiful, useful products, no matter what happens to oil reserves around the world. But it's important that designers are aware of this change that's going on in the world. Design is about style and object and function, but it is most fundamentally about people and their interactions. The different political, technological, cultural and social pressures present right now are poised to effect this root of design to the point where we can no longer afford to make low value product just for the sake of variety. And we need to, and can be ready to react.
For more information on these world events as they unfold, we've been keeping an eye on Worldchanging.com, and some Google News Alerts on "Oil China" and "China Population". There are so many great web spots for this information. Just keep your eyes open. And if you've got anything to add, let us know.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team