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Buying into spontaneity

"Do I hear $2,000? ... $2,000?" the auctioneer asked, surveying the silent crowd. "Sold to No. 4."

To my surprise – and mild consternation, frankly – I was suddenly the owner of a large tribal rug. I had tentatively raised my yellow bid card after listening to the auctioneer's exotic tales of how the rug was woven by refugees traipsing over rugged mountain passes.

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A load of twaddle, it later transpired. But I was sucked in by the evocative spiel.

As I contemplated my suckerdom, I concluded that spontaneous purchases are really a counterfeit serendipity. What's actually happening is that we're unwittingly falling prey to advertisers' persuasion.

Rather than finding what we weren't looking for, more often we're buying what we don't need.

This exuberant consumption is not without repercussions. With the hard sell of American culture beating the drum to go shopping – now almost a patriotic duty in view of the stumbling economy – we may be buying out our own future.

A report this month by the World Wildlife Fund says that humans are "running a huge deficit with the earth." Unless we stop the massive depletion of resources, it warns, our standard of living will start to plummet by 2030.

At the top of the extravagant-lifestyle list are North Americans, who consume resources at twice the rate of Europeans, who themselves consume almost four times as much per capita as the average Asian or African.

Next month's Earth Summit in Johannesburg – the most significant negotiations on the environment for a decade – will throw that split into stark relief. And if the summit's June preparatory meeting in Bali is any guide, there could be fireworks between rich and poor.