02 October 2009

The Consumption Explosion & Boomerang Trade

Excerpt from Warmer Bulletin e-news, 2 October 2009

'In spite of one of the biggest global recessions for a century - the trend toward ever greater over-consumption is hardly changing according to The Consumption Explosion: the Third UK Interdependence Day Report.

The report is published on the day - Friday 25 September - that the world as a whole goes into 'ecological debt', consuming more resources and generating more waste than ecosystems can produce and absorb.

After more than two decades of going ever earlier into ecological debt - in spite of the global recession there is set to be a delay, in effect, of just 24 hours before the world as a whole goes into ecological debt. This leaves the overall trend of our collective ecological footprint deeply negative with humanity still environmentally over-extending itself to a dangerous degree:

In 2009, World Ecological Debt Day falls on 25 September, allowing for a leap year, it means that the impact of a massive world-wide recession has slowed its arrival by just a single day compared to 2008, with the date still having advanced almost two weeks from 2007 when it fell on 6 October.

Andrew Simms, nef policy director and co-author of the report says: "Debt-fuelled over-consumption not only brought the financial system to the edge of collapse it is pushing many of our natural life support systems toward a precipice. Politicians tell us to get back to business as usual, but if we bankrupt critical ecosystems no amount of government spending will bring them back. We need a radically different approach to 'rich world' consumption. While billions in poorer countries subsist, we consume vastly more and yet with little or nothing to show for it in terms of greater life satisfaction. Defusing the consumption explosion will give us the chance of better lives."

The Consumption Explosion also reveals some of the crazy and wasteful ways that the UK does business with the rest of the world through so-called 'boomerang trade'. Because we do not pay the full environmental cost of transport, all around us there are ships, lorries and planes passing in the night, wastefully carrying often identical goods from city to city across the globe and back again to meet consumer demand. For example, the latest data shows that, in the UK:

We export 5,000 tonnes of toilet paper from the UK to Germany, but then import over 4,000 tonnes back again

4,400 tonnes of ice cream gets exported from the UK to Italy, and 4,200 tonnes is then imported back

We import 22,000 tonnes of potatoes from Egypt and export 27,000 tonnes back the other way

116 tonnes of 'Sweet biscuits, waffles and wafers, gingerbread and the like' (the official category for trade statistics) comes into the UK, rumbling passed 106 tonnes headed in the opposite direction...

"Our overuse of the Earth's resources has other, perverse impacts. Climate change, changes to people's diets, energy prices and shortages, and global competition for land between food and biofuels, have all increased the vulnerability of the international food chain. Exacerbating the problem, many wealthy countries are relying ever more on some of the poorest to guarantee supplies. Since 2006, large scale transnational land acquisitions by governments and multinational corporations based in countries like the UK, have targeted up to 20 million hectares of farmland in developing countries, an area equivalent to all the farmland in France.

The report also shows why a recently revived focus on global population as an environmental issue is a critical distraction from tackling over-consumption in wealthy countries. There are currently huge inequalities around the world in terms of environmental impacts per person.

For example, one person in the United States will, by 4am in the morning of 2nd January, already have been responsible for the equivalent in climate change causing carbon emissions that someone in living in Tanzania would generate in an entire year. A UK citizen would reach the same point by 7pm on 4th January.

Dr Joe Smith, co-author of the report and Senior Lecturer on the Environment at the Open University says: "Doom-mongering about global population growth is misleading at best. Globally birth rates are not rocketing out of control - on the contrary, and we know that the most effective way of tackling population growth is tackling poverty. Environmentally, the most pressing need is to take a radically different view on the nature and quality of 'rich world' consumption, in almost every area of life."

As The Consumption Explosion shows, the only effective and socially acceptable path to influence population dynamics is through poverty eradication and reducing inequality. Given environmental realities, this is hard-wired to ending rich world over-consumption. Average levels of consumption, per person, in poorer countries have changed little over many decades. In rich countries, however, we are each consuming vastly more and yet with little or nothing to show for it in terms of greater life satisfaction.'

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