Cult of Consumerism at Root of Planet's Environmental Degradation & Destruction


photo: Ben Ostrowsky via flickr.

The Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2010 report has just been released and takes square aim at what's at the root of the planet's current environment woes, be it climate change, biodiversity loss, natural resource overconsumption. It's consumerism (green or not). In short, and you've heard TreeHugger and many others say it before, but it bears repeating: There are simply not enough resources on the planet to extend what is considered a normal, even essential, level of material consumption in wealthy nations to a planet with 6 billion and growing people:Resource Use Increasing Faster Than Population
Consider some stats. Even accounting for population growth, from 1960 to 2006 the per capita consumption of natural resources globally tripled. In accomplishing this, metal production grew six times, oil consumption eight times, natural gas use 14 times. The average European uses some 43 kilos of natural resources daily, while the average US resident more than doubles that at 88 kilograms.

Even accounting for the fact that the vast majority of the world's population consumes far, far less than this, natural resources and ecosystem services equal to 1.3 planets are consumed by humans.

7% of People = 50% of Carbon Emissions
Dividing up responsibility for that over-consumption, and translating it into greenhouse gases, we find that some 500 million people (7% of world population) are responsible for 50% of global CO2 emissions, with 3 billion of our brothers and sisters responsible for just 6%.

In terms of goods and services, in 2006 the United States accounted for 32% of global expenditures with just 5% of world population.

thailand sidestreet photo

Even if the whole world consumed like the average person in Thailand, it would not be sustainable for everyone on the planet. Photo: Ahron de Leeuw via flickr.
Only 1.4 Billion People Could Sustainably Consume Like United States
Convert that into ecological footprint and you find that the planet could indeed support US consumption levels, if global population was just 1.4 billion people. Even if everyone consumed natural resources like the average person in Jordan or Thailand, the planet still couldn't support current and projected populations without continued and worsening environmental degradation.

According to Worldwatch calculations a per capita income (based on 2008 dollars, and purchasing power parity) of $5,100 could be extended to 6.2 billion people and still be sustainable. Anything above this, and about one third of the world's people are already above it, and you quickly move into an unsustainable system.

solar panel installation photo

For the next 25 years, 200 square meters of solar panels built every second, plus solar thermal and wind power, would be required to replace fossil fuel usage. Photo: Wayne National Forest via flickr.
Replacing Fossil Fuel Energy Daunting, To Say The Least
Let's put it bluntly:
The adoption of sustainable technologies should enable basic levels of consumption to remain ecologically viable. From Earth's perspective, however, the American or even the European way of life is simply not viable. A recent analysis found that in order to produce enough energy over the next 25 years to replace most of what is supplied by fossil fuels, the world would need to build 200 square meters of solar photovoltaic panels every second plus 100 square meters of solar thermal every second plus 24 3-megawatt wind turbines every hour nonstop for the next 25 years. All of this would take tremendous energy and materials--ironically frontloading carbon emissions just when they most need to be reduced--and expand humanity's total ecological impact significantly in the short term.

And We Still Would Need to Reduce Resource Consumption
This paragraph from Erik Assadourian's opening piece from the book really hits the nail on the head:
It becomes clear that while shifting technologies and stabilizing population will be essential in creating sustainable societies, neither will succeed without considerable changes in consumption patterns, including reducing and even eliminating the use of certain goods, such as cars and airplanes, that have become important parts of life today for many.

The full State of the World report is $10 well spent (for the PDF or Kindle version, $20 for the printed version) if you want to really get a grasp on what all of us are up against, whether we like it or not. I highly encourage you to read it. It really starts to get at the deep cultural value shifts that need to take place if we are going to create anything even approaching an environmentally sustainable civilization. It won't and can't happen overnight, but happen it must.

Ecological Footprint
Your Ecological Footprint: Defining, Calculating and Reducing Your Environmental Footprint
One More Step to Ecological Insolvency: September 23rd is Earth Overshoot Day 2008
Treading Heavily on the Environment: China's Growing Eco-Footprint

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