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A Billion New Consumers: Is the World Ready?

Neal Peirce / Sep 07 2012

For Release Sunday, September 9, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceIs all economic growth always a good thing?

The McKinsey Global Institute predicts an expansion of the world’s “consuming class,” 1 billion new middle-class city residents whose demand between now and 2024 will fuel astronomic expansion in commerce, ports, building and vehicle sales.

The U.S. political season is peppered with calls for economic growth, and sometimes candidates are belittled for taking global climate change seriously and talking of more efficient ways to increase energy demand.

When world nations assembled this summer in Rio de Janeiro for the “Rio+20″ environmental conference, the leaders’ official announcements skirted any case to restrain global economic expansion.

But read the detailed projections of the new McKinsey report, which lists the demands that an added 1 billion middle-class consumers will place on the global environment. Complacency seems like whistling past a graveyard.

This new consumer group – whose biggest numbers will be in China and India – will have demands that force a 2 1/2 -times expansion of world ports for container ships carrying new waves of goods – dishwashers to TVs, shoes to bottled water.

New buildings will cost $80 trillion over 15 years, with a 90 percent expansion in residential floor space alone – in other words, almost equaling today’s worldwide total. China and South Asia are projected to build 7,000 square kilometers of residential floor space, equivalent to the total land area of the Netherlands.

Another superlative – automobiles. Developing world nations will trigger a doubling of the world fleet, to 1.7 billion by 2030. The inevitable result will be massive new demand for metals and petroleum, clogged roadways and escalating injuries and deaths.

Is this our concept of sustainable growth for our planet? Are we ready to careen down this roadway of exploding consumer demands without a serious global conversation about its implications?

There were pieces of good news flowing from Rio+20 conference, notes Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, who monitored the process closely. A top example: agreement to provide more than $175 billion for sustainable transport in developing countries, signed on by the World Bank and development banks in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Better transport for broad swaths of the population and improving road safety (critical for pedestrians) should be among the top global goals – a far cry from the super-roads, which mostly help the affluent, being built in many cities.

But Scherr reports a major disappointment, underscored in Rio: “The political leadership of the planet simply does not recognize that there are limits – that we are bumping up against the capacity of the planet to meet our needs.”

He doesn’t disagree with the Rio delegates’ official declaration on the issue of poverty and the big goal to eradicate it. “But,” adds Scherr, today’s serious issue of planetary strain “was simply not recognized.”

Four decades ago, notes Scherr, America’s officials and thought leaders rejected the case – advanced by the Club of Rome and others – that the world was consuming resources at an unsustainable level. But, adds Scherr: “40 years later, we’re seeing the ability of the planet to endlessly absorb our pollution is simply not there.”

Countless surveys – citing carbon-triggered global warming plus shrinking forests, species loss, minerals depletion, fisheries collapse and more – support his contention. According to a group known as the Global Footprint Network, “Humanity is simply using more than the planet can provide.” Globally, the group estimates, to replenish current consumption would take one and a half Earths. If the whole planet consumed resources at the U.S. rate, more than four planets would be required.

A typical culprit, made more serious by global middle-class expansion and demand, is air-conditioning. The United States is by far the globe’s most gluttonous user. But worldwide demand, especially in rapidly expanding tropical cities, is accelerating rapidly. Cooling has been described as “the craze” in India, where air-conditioning sales are rising 20 percent a year and electric grid failure in July left 600 million people without power.

But crying Cassandra isn’t the answer, contends Anjali Jaiswal, an attorney with NRDC’s international program. “Super-efficient” air-conditioners for India’s climate, energy efficiency codes for new buildings and other technologies can help blunt the massive energy shortage problem, she argues: “If some 80 percent of India’s infrastructure for 2030 has to be built or rebuilt, it’s a singular opportunity – to do it right, with efficiency from the start.”

But other figures Jaiswal cites – for example India’s projected need to increase its power generation capacity from 160 gigawatts today to 600 gigawatts just by 2020 – raise deeply disturbing environmental concerns.

Of course: Who are Americans to complain? We invented the high-demand, middle-class lifestyle. In movies and TV shows, we pushed worldwide demand. That raises the hard question: Will we curb our own demand? Will we be there for the hard landing, too?

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Alan Mayers
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Three cheers (and a bucket of tears) for this column, Neal.

  2. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    I think McKinsey is blowing hopium. This prediction maybe about as off as its acolodes for Enron.
    If developing countries have sense they will buy buses not automobiles;build tramways.
    By the way, largest bust is already ordered by Shanghai and Beijing.
    Take a $10m ride on the world’s largest bus that is 101ft long and can carry 256 passengers
    France Commits to Tramways, A Possible Model for the Future of Urban Rail

  3. Simon Mueller
    Posted September 7, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article in general, but the Netherlands is probably feeling a little shorted (by about 35000 sq km).

  4. Allen E Neyman
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Time seems to debunk our predictions of global demise based on resource depletion, but Neil rasies maybe the most important question we face as leaders in the world of design and development – dare we promote, or discourage, work in developing countries with methods and patterns that appear unsustainable?

  5. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted September 15, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Simon low lieing areas are of course vulnerable to sea level rise;but so also is East Coast of US. No sign US isseriously addressing changes to be wrought by climate change.
    Study: Sea rise faster on East Coast than rest of globe.
    Sea Level Rise Unstoppable, say Scientists

  6. Bruce Wiggins
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Good article. “Hard landing” is the key phrase if everybody continues as is. Peak oil, peak everything, and climate change are coming — or are here already. Earth and its systems are losing their resilience. What will you do to “power down”? What will our economic, social and government structures do to power down? Planned transitions are better than the chaos of a hard landing. Find out about Transition Towns in your area. Join the Transition Network.