A Materials World

The future of resources: museum pieces?

The future of resources: museum pieces?

Here’s yet another sign that our age is one of global-level limits: last week, an event known as the World Resources Forum was held to bring together scientists, activists, and policymakers to consider strategies for reducing the world’s burgeoning appetite for resources. An answer to the famous World Economic Forum (the annual gathering of world business leaders in Davos, Switzerland), the WRF examines the underlying resource base that makes business possible.

As an WRF attendee, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the simple yet insightful observation by Herman Daly, one of the fathers of ecological economics, that we live in a “full world.” At the meeting, Friends of the Earth Europe and the Sustainable Europe Research Institute released a new report outlining the heavy resource use of modern economies. Among other findings: humans extract 50 percent more natural resources today than they did 30 years ago, or some 60 billion tons of raw materials per year. And, under a business-as-usual scenario, resource use could nearly double by 2030 compared with 2005. In addition, and not surprisingly, resource use is greater in wealthy than in poor countries: the average American uses 88 kilograms of resources per day and the average European 43 kilos, but the average Asian uses only 14 kilos and the average African 10 kilos.

Seemingly good news in the report is that we are becoming more efficient with the wood, metals, fuels, and other materials we extract. The global economy today needs 30 percent fewer resources to produce a unit of GDP than it did 30 years ago. But in truth, this is little cause for cheer: increased consumption due to population growth and growing consumption per person have more than offset those efficiency gains. The bottom line is that the global economy uses more resources today than it did 30 years ago, which translates into greater environmental damage.

Clearly, the relative decoupling of economies and resources achieved to date needs to be replaced with an absolute decoupling, so that efficiency increases are not unraveled by consumption increases. California may have some ideas: it has gained fame for setting in place policies that produced no growth in energy use over the past 30 years, despite increases in population—an absolute decoupling. This feat happened in large part because the state created an incentive structure for utilities that made conservation profitable, turning the conventional idea of a utility on its head.  

Can we turn whole economies on their heads? Can we imagine an economy where profit and prosperity go to those who use the least resources to deliver a product and a unit of GDP?  Attendees at the WRF have this vision. By using resource taxes, rewards for resource-efficient behavior, and incentives for comprehensive recycling, as well as by tapping resource efficiency opportunities within countries, such a world would indeed seem possible.

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