Global Consumption Trends Break New Records

A view of Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm in California. Between 2000 and 2012, wind power grew nearly 16 fold while solar power generation jumped 49 fold. (Photo by Chuck Coker, Creative Commons License)
A view of Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm in California. Between 2000 and 2012, wind power grew nearly 16 fold while solar power generation jumped 49 fold. (Photo by Chuck Coker, Creative Commons License)

From coal to cars to coffee, consumption levels are breaking records. According to the Worldwatch Institute’s latest report, Vital Signs, Volume 22: The Trends That Are Shaping Our Future, the acceleration of resource depletion, pollution, and climate change may come with under-appreciated social and environmental costs.

Worldwatch is an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues. The Institute’s State of the World report is published annually in multiple languages. Vital Signs tracks key trends in the environment, agriculture, energy, society, and the economy to inform and inspire the changes needed to build a sustainable world. It shows trends related to today’s often record-breaking levels of consumption by providing data and concise analyses of significant global trends.

“Consumers often do not know the full footprint of the products they are buying, such as the embedded water in a t-shirt or steak, the pesticide exposure of cotton farmers, or the local devastation caused by timber companies cutting down forests to produce paper,” a press release quoted Michael Renner, Vital Signs Project Director, as saying.

The 24 trends tracked in Vital Signs illustrate these and other consequences of consumption on a scale never before experienced on Earth, the press release added. With a global population of over 7 billion and growing, the need to preserve ecosystems is undeniable. Yet, for many products, the growth of consumption is reaching new levels:

  • Global meat production has more than quadrupled in the last half century to over 308 million tons in 2013, bringing with it considerable environmental and health costs due to its large-scale draw on water, feedgrains, antibiotics, and grazing land.
  • While global hunger is decreasing, 1 in 9 people still do not get enough to eat.
  • Coffee production has doubled since the early 1960s. However, an estimated 25 million coffee growers worldwide are at the mercy of extreme price volatility.
  • For more than 50 years, global plastic production has continued to rise, with 299 million tons of plastics produced in 2013 alone. Recycling rates remain low, however, and the majority of plastics end up in landfills and oceans—polluting ecosystems, entangling wildlife, and blighting communities.
  • The world’s fleet of automobiles now surpasses 1 billion, with each vehicle contributing greenhouse gases and reducing air quality.
  • Aquaculture production has increased about 10-fold since 1984; today, almost half of the fish that people eat is farmed.
  • Rail Transport: China has built the world’s largest network of high-speed rail, accounting for 40 percent of high-speed travel in 2013.
  • Renewable Energy: Wind and solar energy are the fastest growing electricity technologies worldwide. Between 2000 and 2012, wind power grew nearly 16-fold and solar jumped 49-fold.
  • Coal Consumption: The coal supply is getting “dirtier” as markets grow for coal with a lower energy content. The average heat content of coal produced in the United States dropped from 29 megajoules per kilogram in 2005 to about 23 megajoules in 2012.
  • Cotton Impacts: Producing a pair of jeans takes 10,850 liters of water and a t-shirt takes 2,720 liters.
  • Food Trade: About one-quarter of the community of nations—51 countries—imported more than half of their grain in 2013.

Vital Signs, Volume 22 presents these and other global trends and analyses of our planet and civilization. The book uses straightforward language and easy-to-read graphs to present each indicator. Vital Signs is created as a guide to inform governments, businesses, teachers, and concerned citizens everywhere to make the changes needed to build a sustainable world.

“Untrammeled consumerism lies at the heart of many of these challenges,” writes Renner. “As various articles in this edition of Vital Signs show, consumption choices matter greatly.”

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