Global Consumption Skyrocketing

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

November 23, 2015

One consequence of an enormous population

Across four decades, the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, founded in 1974 by the incomparable Lester Brown, has issued insightful reports on important environmental, economic, social and technological trends shaping the future of the Earth and its human inhabitants.

The first annual report in the State of the World series was published in 1984 and the first report in the Vital Signs series was issued in 1992. The most recent Vital Signs, Volume 22, was released earlier this fall.

The headline on the Worldwatch press release promoting the book declares:

“Global Consumption Trends Break New Records”

Volume 22 tracks trends in the consumption levels of a diverse selection of economic products, ranging from coal and cars to coffee.

Of course, for economists, politicians and most of the public, increases in production and consumption are causes for celebration, not consternation. This is true in both already developed countries and those struggling to develop and improve the humble standard of living for their masses of poor, dispossessed and downtrodden. Even in a developed, already rich country like our own, unless an economy is growing, unemployment rises and millions of everyday citizens lose their jobs, cannot make rent or mortgage payments, or put enough food on the table.

Yet the production and consumption of every economic item comes at some environmental cost, be it the cutting down of a tropical rainforest teeming with colorful birds and insects to develop a coffee plantation monoculture or the razing of a mangrove swamp that serves as a nursery for marine fish and a barrier to tropical storms to construct shrimp farms.

An ecologist would say that aggregate consumption and its attendant environmental impacts are the mathematical product of two primary factors: population size and per capita consumption. Multiply population times average production/consumption and you get a rough idea of aggregate environmental impact.

Earth’s ecosystems are now burdened with 7.3 billion human beings, virtually all whom are striving to consume more next year than last year, and still more the year after that. Our economic model appears designed either to grow…or to stagnate and collapse. No society opts voluntarily for stagnation and collapse and the suffering and chaos they entail.

And yet if economic and population growth continue with abandon – depleting natural capital and overloading air, land and water with waste byproducts – the very environmental resources and healthy ecosystems upon which the edifice of human economies and civilization itself are erected will themselves corrode and collapse.

The signs of ecological overshoot and drawdown of natural capital are all around us: in the disappearing croplands, forests, wildlife, wetlands and soils; in mountains ravaged by coal mining, and forests and prairies crisscrossed by roads, pipelines and hydrofracking drill pads; in polluted air and water; and in the ominous buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and an acidifying ocean.

Because plastic is not biodegradable, its ultimate fate
in the environment can be costly to other creatures.

Drawing on a vast body of research and data, Volume 22 of Vital Signs connects today’s record-breaking levels of consumption with the acceleration of pollution, natural resource depletion and climate change. Some examples:

  • Global meat production has more than quadrupled in the last half century, with attendant environmental and health costs for water, feed grains, antibiotics and grazing land. 

  • Global plastic production has grown for more than half a century, with 299 million tons of plastics produced in 2013 alone. Overall, plastic recycling rates remain quite low. Most nonbiodegradable plastics wind up in landfills or the oceans (e.g., the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”). They blight neighborhoods, litter once pristine beaches and ensnare, choke or stuff the stomachs of unsuspecting wildlife such as seabirds. 

  • The world’s fleet of automobiles now exceeds 1 billion, and each of those vehicles when running emits both pollutants and the primary greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

To a population activist such as myself, the consumption and population issues are inextricably linked. The Worldwatch Institute has always acknowledged this as well, perhaps more than any other prominent organization with a global perspective.

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