Humans Now Consuming 25% of All Plant Life Growing Each Year

Earth from space photo

photo: NASA

Plenty of research on both both personal and national ecological footprints has shown that we are using Earth's resources at unsustainable rates, that we are using them up faster than they can be regenerated. Now, some new work from NASA digs a bit deeper, examining how plant consumption is increasing as both population and consumerism levels increase. An update to work first done in 2004, the new research shows the following main points:

  • Between 1995 and 2005, human consumption of land plants increased from 20-25% of total plant production on the planet each year, with both total global consumption and per capita consuming rising over that period and continuing to rise.
  • As with ecological footprints in general, there are great regional disparities--the average person in North American consuming about 6 tons of plant-based carbon annually, while the average person in Southeast Asia consumes less than 2 tons of plant-based carbon.
  • If the entire human population consumed plant material like the average North American today, we would use more than 55% of all plants grown on the planet each year.
  • As for the relative roles of population growth and increasing consumerism, the report says that it varies regionally: In some places, India is singled out, per capita consumption has not radically increased but population growth has meant that overall consumption levels have risen; while in North American both population and consumption levels are increasing.

increase in population growth versus consumption graph

Though population growth and rising demand for resources as more of the world enters into consumeristic lifestyles both play a part in the rising amount of plant life consumed, as this chart shows, on a global basis rising per capita increases in consumption have far outpaced the influence of population growth. More of these slides.

Lead researcher Marc Imhoff says that this research does not present a "doomsday" scenario. But Imhoff says that though consumption and population growth are often looked at as separate issues, the biosphere doesn't care if it's a small number of people consuming lots of resources or a lot of people consuming very little, it's the total consumption rate that matters. And with the trend towards more total consumption we are "heading toward a place where the planet would be very carefully managed, from end to end."

More at: NASA - How Hard Are We Pushing The Land?
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More on Ecological Footprint:
Connecting the Dots: Population Growth, Consumerism & Biodiversity Loss Tangled Together
Next Saturday We All Start Going Into Ecological Debt - Earth Overshoot Day 2010 is August 21st
China's Ecological Footprint Unsustainable - We'd Still Need 1.2 Planets if Everyone Had It

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