This summer, the United Nations International Resource Panel (IRP), published ‘Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity’, a report that admits what ecologists have been saying for decades: resources are limited, human consumption trends are unsustainable and resource depletion diminishes human health, quality of life and future development.
The report shows that consumption of Earth’s primary resources (metals, fuels, timber, cereals and so forth) has tripled in the last 40 years, driven by population growth (increasing at about 1.1% per year), economic growth (averaging about 3% per year over the same period) and consumption per person, worldwide.
Coal Mines at the source of the Yellow River, China
Economic growth has helped lift some regions from poverty and created more middle-class consumers, while enriching the wealthiest nations the most. The UN report acknowledges, however, that advances in human well-being have been achieved through consumption patterns that are “not sustainable” and that will “ultimately deplete the resources − causing shortages [and] conflict”.
In 1970 — when ecologists in Canada founded Greenpeace and Club of Rome scholars prepared the original ‘Limits to Growth’ study — a human population of 3.7 billion used 22 billion tons of primary materials per year. Forty years later, in 2010, with a population of 6.7 billion, humans used 70 billion tons. Now, in 2016, we require about 86 billion tons and the UN Resource Panel estimates that by 2050 we will require annually some 180 billion tons of raw materials, which Earth’s ecosystems may not be able to provide.
Furthermore, modern technology has not made our economies more efficient, as promised. As technology has advanced, material consumption accelerated. Fossil fuel consumption has grown annually by 2.9%, metal ores by 3.5%, and non-metalic minerals by 5.3%. Since 2000, even as economic growth and population growth slowed, material demand accelerated. Frivolous consumption has increased among the rich and we now spend increasing amounts of energy to extract lower grade resources, reducing productivity.
Wires and cables brought to the Lyari River, Karachi, to be burned.
According to Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, co-chair of the panel, “the alarming rate at which materials are now being extracted … shows that the prevailing patterns of production and consumption are unsustainable… We urgently need to address this problem before we have irreversibly depleted the resources that power our economies and lift people out of poverty. This deeply complex problem … calls for a rethink of the governance of natural resource extraction.”
Meanwhile, large economic gaps remain between rich and poor nations, between North America and Europe on one hand, and all other world regions. To achieve economic justice and UN development goals, low income nations will require increasing quantities of materials.
Today, the average citizen in Africa consumes about three tonnes of material resources each year, including infrastructure. In Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, the average citizen consumes about 3-times as much, 8-10 tonnes of materials each year. In Europe and North America, average citizens consume about 20-30 tonnes of materials each year, 7-10-times the average African. The super-rich, elite, with multiple homes, airplanes, and exotic holidays, consume much more, in the range of 100-times the average African citizen, ten-times the middle-class citizen in Asia. The US, with less than 5% of world population, consumes about 30% of global materials.
Social justice goals and ecological goals sometimes appear in conflict, but the real conflict arises between the extravagant consumption of the wealthy and the subsistence consumption of the rest of the world.
Olusosum Dump site, Lagos, Nigeria
In 2008, the Global Footprint Network prepared the following chart that shows how nations measure up to the UN Human Development Index (vertical scale) and the Global Footprint Index (horizontal scale). Those nations above the horizontal 0.800 line meet the UN Human Development goals; those below fall short. Nations to the left of the vertical red line live within the budget for a per-capita fair share of Earth’s resources. Those to the right use more than their fair share per person. The average person in the US uses about five times their fair share of Earth’s resources. The average person in Sierra Leone uses about half of a fair share. Several Asian and South American nations come close to achieving both — meeting UN Human Development goals with a fair per-capita share of resources — but the only nation that does achieve both goals is Cuba.
Nations ranked by social development and material consumption: Nations that meet the UN Human Development goals, do so with unsustainable consumption. Those with sustainable levels of resource use are not meeting the UN development goals. Only Cuba achieves both. The challenge of our age is to learn to live sustainably while meeting basic human needs. To achieve this, extravagant consumption doesn’t work, and modest living is the measure of social responsibility. © Global Footprint Network. Original image here.
A vast proportion of consumption in rich nations is wasteful; products are designed to be wasteful and grow obsolete. According to industrial ecologist Robert Ayres, 99% of human-produced goods are consumed or become waste within six months.
The UN panel warns that “rapid economic growth occurring simultaneously in many parts of the world will place much higher demands on supply infrastructure and the environment’s ability to continue supplying materials.” If Earth cannot provide the material increases expected, then total human resource consumption will have to stabilise. How is this to be achieved?
Coal Train in Powder River Basin, USA
Economy and materials
The imperative of industrial economy is growth, but the ecological data tells us to slow down. The conflict may be the supreme challenge of our age, almost entirely ignored by status quo politicians. The UN Resource Panel avoids the challenge by proposing twin strategies of “efficiency” and “decoupling” to allow global economic growth to continue.
Efficiency is the long-sought holy grail of technology, the belief that machines will produce the goods we want with less demand on resources. Decoupling describes the theory that more efficient machines, and wise strategies can create economic growth without consuming resources. Let’s examine these beliefs.
Efficiency: In 1865, William Jevons published ‘The Coal Question’, showing that technological efficiencies did not reduce coal consumption but increased consumption. Historically, when we become more efficient with a resource, we use more of it. The “Jevons paradox” applied to resource use in general. Efficiency often increases consumption.
Gridlocked Motorways in New Delhi, India
Energy efficient automobiles increased leisure driving, vehicle size, and suburban sprawl. Refrigeration efficiency led to larger refrigerators and more electricity consumption. In North America, according to research by William Rees, as modern heating systems improved efficiency by 10-30%, living and working space per person increased on the scale of 100-300%, ten times faster, increasing total energy consumption for heating. According to a 1994 study by Mario Giampietro, the so-called “Green Revolution”, increasing food production with hydrocarbons and fertilizers, led to increased population growth, degraded land, a trail of toxins and more starving people.
Computer technology was going to solve this, making modern life more efficient, but in 1990, at the dawn of the personal computer revolution, global productivity stopped improving and, since 2000, productivity — economic production per unit of resource use or labour — declined. Computers sped up global economy and we now use more fossil fuels, paper and other materials than we did when personal computers became available.
Decoupling: The UN panel’s other theory proposes: “to decouple economic growth and human well-being from ever-increasing consumption of natural resources”, the panel claims, “many countries have initiated policies to facilitate decoupling,” but cannot offer any evidence of success.
The global economy now needs more materials per unit of GDP than required 20 years ago. Meanwhile, lower net energy, higher energy costs for resources and growing environmental destruction per unit of economic activity undermine the hypothesis of decoupling. The UN appears to realise this since they project that annual resource extraction will increase to 180 billion tons by 2050.
Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change proposes “mitigation technologies” such as carbon capture, even though these technologies have not even slowed the growth of carbon emissions. Germany, the world leader in solar installations, has seen no drop in emissions since 2009, while coal and LNG plants remain open. The UN agencies mean well but cling to delusions. “They bombard us with adverts, cajoling us to insulate our homes, turn down our thermostats, drive a little less,” says Tim Jackson, of the UK Sustainable Development Commission. “The one piece of advice you will not see on a government list is ‘buy less stuff!'”
Energy-efficient public library, Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain
For the poorer nations, economic growth remains important, but the blind spot of international politics remains the taboo against recognising the limits to aggregate global economic growth. We have now reached those limits and wealthy countries must embrace this ecological reality.
“Civilization has a metabolism, about 7.1 milliwatts per dollar of GDP (2005 US$),” explains ecologist Nate Hagens at the University of Minnesota. “Currently, 80% of nitrogen in our bodies and 50% of the protein comes indirectly from natural gas.” A study published in Bioscience by J.H. Brown and colleagues points out that “energy imposes fundamental constraints on economic growth and development [similar to] scaling of metabolic rate with body mass in animals.
“Additional economic growth and development will require some combination of (a) increased energy supply, (b) decreased per capita energy use, and (c) decreased human population… The ruins of Mohenjo Daro, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, the Maya, Angkor, Easter Island, and many other complex civilizations provide incontrovertible evidence that innovation does not always prevent socioeconomic collapse.”
Canary Wharf in London, UK
During the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, global material use actually slowed. Historically, economic recessions provide the only examples of reduced consumption — and here we may recognise the genuine solutions to resource consumption: allow and encourage wealthy economies to stabilise and contract. The UN report recognises that “the level of well-being achieved in wealthy industrial countries cannot be generalised globally based on the same system of production and consumption.”
This part, they get right. Humanity needs a new economic model that does not require the delusion of endless growth in a finite global habitat.
By Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.