Industrialisation is consuming natural resources at rates that are demonstrably unsustainable in the long term, points out Helmut Haberl.
But stabilisation or even decline of human population will not decrease the world’s hunger for resources. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 850 million people – 13 percent of the world population – are at present chronically undernourished. To reduce malnutrition in a growing world population we will need substantial increases in food production, perhaps some 70 percent more than today in the year 2050, according to FAO estimates. Even this surge in agricultural production will not suffice to eradicate malnutrition as long as current levels of inequality in food supply remain. Reducing world hunger depends at least as much on reduced poverty as on increased food production.
Food is only one driver of growing global resource use: in fact, during the last century global resource use grew by a factor of 9.5, but biomass use grew by a factor of 3.8 and lagged behind other groups of resources (Figure 1). The yearly use of fossil fuels grew more than 13-fold, ores and industrial minerals 31-fold and construction minerals more than 40-fold.
A major driver behind the trajectory of global resource use displayed in Figure 1 is the global spread of industrialisation; that is, the transition from agrarian subsistence with limited consumption to industrial societies powered by fossil fuels and demanding large amounts of ores and minerals. Industrial society emerged as a historical singularity in England in the 17th and 18th centuries and has since spread across the globe. At present, perhaps a quarter to a third of the world’s population has more or less completed the agrarian-industrial transition and much of the rest is on its way. Some regions are at the initial stages (rural regions in parts of Africa, for example), while others including India and China are moving far more rapidly. Other regions like many urban regions in Latin America and Southeast Asia are almost there (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 2007). Such industrialisation is premised on surges in the use of non-renewable resources, which currently account for 70 percent of global resource supply. No matter which side of the heated peak everything debate one is on, it is clear that this trajectory cannot be sustainable.
Several nations of the Global South are currently following the same resource-intensive path to industrialisation paved by Europe and North America. This is clearly unsustainable, especially while consumption in the industrialised world shows no sign of abating. We need no less than a new development model that allows improvements in human wellbeing throughout the world without harming the Earth system irrevocably. The contours of such a model, however, remain a huge challenge given the issues such as equity and historical responsibility. The difference between a sustainable society and our current industrial one will probably be almost as large as that between the current industrial society and the agrarian subsistence economies that prevailed in Europe some 200 to 300 years ago (Haberl et al. 2011).
Although most of us would agree on the need to change current patterns of resource use and consumption, there is no agreement on how to go about doing this. The existing model of improving wellbeing is premised on economic growth fuelled by consumption. Is there a workable alternative whereby we could live well despite reduced resource throughput? What behavioural and institutional changes would this entail and how could we make those happen? The positive news is that our knowledge about resource use and flows is improving by the day. Such information is already informing management decisions at local and regional scales (for example, cities) and remains available to support any steps taken at the international level towards a transition to sustainability.
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