China’s Unsustainable Economic Growth and Development: The Influence of Conspicuous Consumption



Most of the literature analyzing the sustainability of China’s economy tends to be directed at whether the country can maintain its unprecedented high rates of economic growth. Too little concern has been given to the sustainability of China’s ecosystem, and the effect of rising consumption on the rapid degradation of that ecosystem. This paper will focus on the factors propelling the dramatic shift in values over the past 30 years that heavily favor higher rates of conspicuous consumption and waste, using Thorstein Veblen’s classic analysis of this type of consumption. One negative effect of this consumption has been a dramatic decline of the supply and quality of water that has brought the sustainability of China’s economy and ecosystem into question.

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3 responses

  • This is an interesting examination of problems in China. The role of ‘conspicuous consumption’ as a source of China’s problems is a very good insight. This is not only a Chinese problem but the examples can act as a mirror to the role of status and consumption in Western societies. Perhaps there could have been more on how alternative mechanisms of status could become a force for positive change. I also wonder whether the water issue deserves to be a pulled out as a paper on its own to allow the paper to make the most of the excellent central premise.

  • Thank you for an excellent exposé of the various environmental issues in China. You are referring essentially to institutional economics and ‘conspicuous consumption’ as a concept coined by Thorstein Veblen. Since you have contacts with China my first question to you is about the role of alternatives to the neoclassical paradigm in China. Are there associations, conferences and journals for ecological economics for example?
    At issue is also what we can do and what actors in China can do to change present unsustainable trends. Personally, I think that actors in Europe and the USA are also responsible for the development trends you are describing. We should have warned establishment actors and others in China about the dangers connected with the conceptual framework and ideology of neoclassical economic theory. The neoclassical monopoly in economics education in almost all parts of the world is a problem (to use an understatement). What is your opinion about this?

  • Jim Angresano says:

    Unfortunately, at China’s leading universities the neoclassical paradigm with a strong emphasis on quantifying and modeling virtually any problem is strong. This may be due to many of China’s economists having studied at USA and English universities that have a strong neoclassical emphasis. At Peking University there is the Environmental Economics Program in China (EEPC), set up within the College of Environmental Science and Engineering where some heterodox work is being done. I have lectured there, and many of the students were quite receptive the Daly’s “fundamental vision” as well as the need to incorporate science and social issues into their analysis of proposed projects.
    Now that the Three Gorges Dam is causing fear among policy makers that it could become an ecological disaster more students seem to be paying attention to the need for broader analysis. I agree with you that actors in the USA and Europe contribute heavily to Chinese analysis of environmental problems, especially our universities. Ironically, China developed without following the World Bank/neoclassical model. It is unfortunate that they do not yet seem to recognize the need to abandon orthodox thinking when analysis of growth projects are being made.

    Someone who could give a much better response to your questions is Ed Grumbine, an environmental scientist who has been working in Yunnan Province for the past few years. His book, Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River, is superb, something any ecological economist would endorse. His email address is

    If any reader wishes to contact Ed please mention my name in your message – he was a visitor at my college as well as a guest in my home for a few days during the fall, 2010.