Emulation, Imitation, and Global Consumerism
March, 1996Richard WilkDepartment of AnthropologyIndiana UniversityBloomington, IN 47405
There are good reasons for concern about the environmental impacts of five to ten billionpeople consuming at the presently high levels of the developed countries of Europe, Japan, andNorth America. With high economic growth rates in many parts of the developing world, and therapid spread of electronic media, advertising, and marketing, the next two decades are likely tosee a major transformation in the consumption styles of the majority of the world's population. The global environmental consequences will be dramatic; comparable to the impact of theindustrial revolution, which affected a much smaller part of the globe. The direction and magnitude of the impact of new levels of global consumerism dependson choices the people of the developing world will make about what constitutes the "good life,"and on the kinds of resources they have available to pursue it. This will shape their priorities inpurchasing different kinds of goods and services, their consequent demands for more energy,water, and raw materials, and the resulting emissions, waste, and pollution. If world income levelsrise rapidly, and if that income is spent pursuing the western high-consumption life-style, theconsequences may be severe. This paper will not address directly the first "if," the economic future of the areas whereconsumption is constrained by poverty. World Bank statistics show that growth rates in differentparts of the developing world are extremely uneven, with stagnation and recession in many areas,and rapid growth in others (1994). Even in countries with rapid growth rates, the increasedincome is not distributed evenly; small cosmopolitan elites may accumulate great wealth whileurban underemployed and rural people lag far behind. In general, however, the prospect seems tobe a gradual rise in disposable income among a huge number of people who have until recentlybeen isolated, who have produced basic commodities for the global marketplace for hundreds of years while consuming mostly basic goods they produce themselves or buy in local markets.
Their change in lifestyle is being promoted by improving infrastructure, including roads, watersystems, energy, communication and electrification, declining prices for many mass-marketcommodities (due to more open markets, more widespread manufacturing, greater competition,and advancing technology), higher levels of literacy and education, and the breakdown inautonomous subsistence economies and self-sufficient rural communities. At the same time, hugeincreases in travel, tourism, and international labor migration, and in the consequent (and largelyunrecorded) flow of remittances and personal goods, brings sophisticated technologies, tastes,and practices to even the most remote corners of the globe (Lyer 1989).Prognostication about the second "if," which concerns just
increased incomes in thedeveloping world will be spent can be summarized with three different basic scenarios for theconsumer future of the developing world.
The first could be called
; developingcountries go through the same stages of development of consumer demand in the same orderthat the Northern developed countries went through over the last century. We would expect asequence of waves of consumer innovations which typically start among an urban upper middle-class, and then spread rapidly through all sectors, starting with major consumer durablehousehold goods like refrigerators and stoves, then vehicles, and finally elaborate services,luxuries, tourism, and fashion items. Environmentally, we would expect energy and materialconsumption to increase rapidly and dramatically, but then to level off with the growth of aservice economy and an increased demand for a cleaner environment (Hammond 1995).A
scenario says that developing countries do not have to follow a narrow historicalpath, but can reach the same end as the highly developed economies by different routes that skipintermediate stages. Instead of massive investments in communication infrastructure, for