The Global View

By the numbers: Making the case for a ‘less-stuff’ culture

ShoppersWhat’s wrong with our modern and increasingly global consumer culture? Hasn’t it helped to bring millions out of abject poverty and spurred economic growth in many once-subsistence-level markets?

Yes, acknowledges the latest report from the Worldwatch Institute, “2010 State of the World: Transforming Cultures — from Consumerism to Sustainability.” But unless we rethink our needs (versus wants), continuing along the consumer path as we approach a global population of some 9 billion by mid-century is a sure recipe for disaster.

The report offers a host of figures to underscore that message:

  • While we’ve improved our resource efficiency by 30 per cent over the past 30 years, we’ve still increased our overall resource consumption by 50 per cent;
  • That level of consumption — 60 billion tonnes per year — is equivalent to extracting 112 Empire State Buildings from the planet every day;
  • In just one year (2008), we bought 68 million vehicles, 85 million refrigerators, 297 million computers and 1.2 billion mobile phones;
  • We now produce more than 100 million tonnes of hazardous waste every year;
  • Just 7 per cent of the world’s population — the 500 million richest — are responsible for half the planet’s carbon dioxide emissions;
  • If everyone on the planet achieved the lifestyle of the average US citizen, the Earth could support only 1.4 billion people, rather than the 6.8 billion alive today; and
  • Even a massive global effort to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy won’t help without an accompanying change in our consumer culture. In fact, the report notes, “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 metres of solar photovoltaic panels every second plus 100 square metres 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.”