Cities and the Rising Consumer Class


Cities are growing in an explosive manner, unprecedented in both speed and scale. Four million people from the countryside are pushed and pulled into cities every month. This is adding approximately one billion people to what is described as the global “Consuming Class,” according to the 2012 report from McKinsey Global Institute, “Urban world: Cities and the rise of the consuming class”.  The Consumer Class is those that steadily increase the purchase of goods and services beyond human needs. 

But this worldwide rural to urban migration will also produce perhaps one billion new slum dwellers.  Those who cannot nor will ever manage to enter the Consuming Class.  That is because the accumulation by dispossession associated with the global market is designed to insure inequality.  Cities are restructuring nations and corporations will be betting more on cities than nations to maximize profit.  This will be the most important global political transformation since the formation of the nation state.

The resulting challenges to cities are unprecedented.  For example, the urban growth will require a 40% increase over current levels of water consumption or 20 times the water consumption of New York. The cost is estimated at $480 billion by 2025. Yet according to Nature (2010), 80% of the world's population already face fresh water insecurity. And rising temperatures from global warming, which will be exasperated by the new Consuming Class, will intensity water shortages.

The urban consequences of the Consumer Class are evident in Chicago.  It is the only city in the developing world that between now and 2025 is projected to pass the ten million mark in population, achieving megacity status.  One result is the current black on black homicide and gun violence, a product of marginalized and disadvantaged neighborhoods.  The strategy excludes the poor from downtown and houses the “invisible” black man in prison.  Not only is global urban growth concentrated in a few hundred cities, but also within those cities, consumerism is concentrated in a very few neighborhoods.

Consumerism, and conspicuous consumption, is a driving force in the emergence of the Anthropocene, a term coined to describe the current era of human domination over every species and ecosystem. The result is devastating. An article by Roger Bradbury in the New York Times, “A World without Coral Reefs,” describes a near future without any coral reefs.  Yet coral reefs supply food and income sources for at least thirty million people worldwide, the number of people in all but about three dozen countries.   Escalating consumerism geometrically increases the global footprint (the requirement of the Earths limited land and water resources to meet market demand) of this elite. The new Consuming Class insures a decreasing capacity to supply the needs of the globally disadvantaged.  The economic growth from cities has already reversed the 48% decrease in commodity prices from the last century.  Now the rapid increase in commodity prices alone is certain to dramatically increase inequality and poverty.  This will not be accommodated by better city planning, something that is very unlikely in most cities.  What is needed is to de concentrate elite power in favor of more local control, such as participatory budgeting in Brazil.

The McKinsey Report projects an unwarranted confidence that technological solutions, or “smart cities,” will address the unintended ecological, social or political consequences of consumerism.  Moreover, it suggests that the primary function of the city is consumerism rather than human development. The aggressive promotion of market driven consumerism in a world of widespread inequality is immoral.  What they want are consumers not citizens.  The approach mistakenly equates consumerism with human capability. Finally, the Report does not account for the consequences of this dramatic shift in global power, as these Global Cities become far more powerful economic engines than almost all of the nations of the world. 

July 16, 2012.