BOSTON — When it comes to the creation, marketing, and consumption of goods, the United States continues to lead the world. But as more countries evolve into free-market economies and clamor for a high-consumption lifestyle, experts ask, "Is the US the best example to follow?"
After studying the future of renewable energy and more efficient fossil fuel consumption, international researchers at the University of Sao Paulo last year concluded that the world could have a lifestyle like that of average Western Europeans: modest homes, few appliances, accessible public transit, and limited use of cars.
But not the American lifestyle of large homes, dozens of appliances, and families with two and three cars. Spreading this lifestyle throughout the world, the study said, would be impossible in terms of the energy required to sustain it.
"The example we have set is the operating dream or ideal for a very large share of the world's people," says Alan Durning, a senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute.
Whether the US consumption example reflects conditioned choices or is behavior basic to human nature is still open to question. "If we weren't influencing the world, it would be someone else because what we are seeing everywhere is an expression of the basic human desire to consume," says Lawrence Wortzel, a management professor at Boston University,
For better or worse, the US consumer society has gone from having 9,000 items on the shelves of a 1976 supermarket to more than 30,000 items in a supermarket of today.
One-fifth of American households now own three or more vehicles, and 90 percent of new cars have air conditioning.
In 1991, 3,064 health and beauty-care products were introduced in the American marketplace along with 1,367 new beverages.
But with the proliferation and acquisition of goods comes the discarding of the broken, the old, and the unwanted.
Each year Americans throw away about 180 million razor blades.
In 1987 Americans dumped 3.4 million tons of unwanted major appliances into municipal dump sites.
And in the same year each adult American threw away 1,429 pounds of such items as containers, packaging, clothing, food scraps, newspapers, boxes, yard wastes, and disposable tableware.
However, increased recycling efforts in the US have begun to alter the statistics, if not the consuming habits of the nation. A report on trends in solid-waste generation by Franklin Associates done for four large corporations stated that "over the 15-year period [1972 to 1987], solid waste generated in the US grew by 34 percent, but accelerating recycling and other recovery programs reduced the growth of materials actually discarded to 28 percent."
In Massachusetts, for instance, 10 percent of all trash is recycled. The rest is burned or buried. Japan is the best example of a national commitment to recycle. Nearly 50 percent of waste generated by Japan's municipalities is recycled.
"The changes that are occurring in the US can be part of the way we encourage less consuming lifestyles in other countries," says Mr. Durning. He recommends that the US encourage low-impact, efficient models of development in other countries when the US gives aid through official programs or private channels. But the US has to set an example that "is bucking the trend of a lot of centuries," he says.
"If we want to argue seriously with Mexican planners that as part of our aid package to them that they downplay the auto in Mexico City and invest heavily in bicycling lanes, super-efficient buses and trolley systems, then we have to be moving toward that model ourselves," says Durning.
Consumption, when considered as basic to human behavior by some scientists, is nevertheless not without the need of discipline. Durning cites Amsterdam and Stockholm as cities worth emulating. "They use much less resources per person because people live fairly close together, have a sense of community, and shop in the neighborhood instead of driving to the mall," he says.
Now virtually an integral part of US life is the shopping mall which Durning says "encourages acquisitive impulses" and discourages public transportation.
The number of US shopping malls reached 32,563 in 1987, more than the number of high schools. Durning cites the growth of malls and superstores in Europe: In the 1980s Britain's malls doubled to 500, Italy will probably see 35 malls multiply to 100 in five years, and the number of malls or shopping centers in Spain is expected to triple by this year.
"I think this consumption question may be the most difficult challenge that the environment poses for people," says Durning. "It will be most difficult to break away from the idea that more stuff is what makes life better beyond the point where all basic needs are met."