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Our Consumptive Habits

Populations continue to grow, even though the growth rate has slowed down. But more than the growth of population, it is consumption that is driving the demand for natural resources, despite the slowing down of economic growth. Increased material prosperity can be related to the industrial and urban transformation, especially since 2000. An important report released recently describes the escalating consumption of natural resources. This is of grave concern as it looks at material use and movement in the global economy for the past 40 years showing clearly that consumption is the major driver of material use, much more than population growth.

The report points out that trade has grown faster than domestic extraction. While some countries have increased their net exports of materials over time, it has been the other way for many others. China, India and Pakistan reportedly show an interesting pattern of fast increasing import dependency for the direct trade of materials. What is worrying is that production is shifting from very material-efficient countries to countries that have low material efficiency (including China, India and Southeast Asia), resulting in an overall decline in material efficiency. Globally, more material per unit of GDP is now required.

The report says that ‘Globally, growth in per capita income and consumption has been the strongest driver of growth in material use, even more important than population growth in recent decades, especially since 2000. Population has continued to contribute to rising material demand but not to the same extent as rising per capita income and the emergence of a new middle class in developing countries. Material efficiency mitigated some of the growth of material use driven by growing population and world economy between 1970 and 1990. Since 1990, there has not been much improvement in global material efficiency, which actually started to decline around 2000.’

An interesting feature of this report is the material footprint indicator which reports the amounts of materials that are required for final demand (consumption and capital investment) in a country or region. This indicator is a good proxy for the material standard of living. A country that prided itself on being able to recycle and reuse everything, where nothing was considered a waste till a few decades ago, now finds itself  rapturously embracing the use and throw economy and hence the results are not surprising. The report says that the annual per capita material footprint for Asia Pacific, between 9 and 10 tonnes, is half that of Europe or North America. But that is no solace as it is because a large chunk of our population still does not have access to many resources (being like Africa with an average material footprint of ,3 tonnes per capita) and have to fall back on jugaad to make the best use of what is available. We need to understand more about material flows as the whole life cycle of material use from extraction, transformation and consumption to disposal has tremendous environmental (and social) impacts. We cannot really talk about sustainable development if we do not take this into account.

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For us, living in the tropics and not far from huge mangrove forests such as Sundarbans, Coringa, Pichvaram and Muthupet on the east coast of India, it is difficult to understand that ‘…although they are found in 123 nations and territories, mangrove forests are globally rare. They represent less than 1% of all tropical forests worldwide, and less than 0.4% of the total global forest; and are disappearing three to five times faster than overall global forest losses’. 26th July marked the first ever International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem. There has been growing understanding and interest in mangroves as an ecosystem in the last few decades. In fact UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves has 86 sites out of 669 that include areas of mangroves.

Widespread education is the way forward and here is a brilliant cartoon by Rohan Chakravarty of Green Humour that can easily get the message across about the importance of mangroves.

Ahana Lakshmi