Can the Earth sustain peak production levels?

16 Jul 2013


In 2012, global oil consumption reached an all-time high, the number of workers in vulnerable employment exceeded 1.5 billion, and physical water scarcity affected some 1.2 billion people.

"Our economic systems and theories are programmed to squeeze ever more resources from a planet in distress," says Michael Renner, senior researcher and director of Worldwatch Institute's Vital Signs project.

"A mixture of population growth, consumerism, greed, and short-term thinking by policymakers and business people seems to be inexorably driving human civilization toward a showdown with the planet's limits."

Some of the global trends are positive. Globally, sanitation and water access for 227 million people improved between 2000 and 2010 to the point where these individuals are no longer considered slum dwellers.

Within the agriculture sector, efficient irrigation methods have increased more than six-fold over the last two decades, and organically-certified agricultural land has more than tripled since 1999.

Meanwhile, socially sustainable ways of doing business continue to emerge - about 1 billion people in 96 countries belong to a co-operative, whether as a worker, consumer, producer, or purchaser. Similarly, the emergence of so-called "benefit" corporations offers a more socially and environmentally-responsible model for private firms.

"There is no shortage of alternatives to change the destructive trajectory that humanity finds itself on," said Renner. "Renewables and efficient irrigation are two practical options among many others. But we need to get serious about these tasks instead of consigning them largely to the margins."

The Worldwatch Institute captures the impacts alarming trends and the increasingly risky state of humanity in its latest compilation Vital Signs: Volume 20, which provides up-to-date figures on many of the most critical global concerns. Drawing on a wide range of sources, the report provides authoritative data and analysis on significant global trends such as fossil fuel subsidies, agricultural commodities, and rapid urbanisation in the developing world.

Some highlights from the report:

  • Coal: Global coal production increased by 6,941 million tons in 2011, making coal the fastest growing fossil fuel. Spurred mainly by rising demand in    China and India, coal's share in the global primary energy mix reached 28 percent in 2011----its highest point since record-keeping began in 1971.
  • Wind power: Global wind power capacity grew by 21 percent in 2011----lower than the 2010 rate of 24 percent and markedly lower than the 2009 rate of 31 percent.
  • Automobile production: Passenger car production rose from 60.1 million vehicles in 2010 to 62.6 million vehicles in 2011----and 2012 brought a new all-time record of 66.1 million vehicles.
  • Meat production and consumption: Global meat production surpassed 300 million tons for the first time in 2012; annual meat consumption increased just 0.4 percent to 42.5 kilograms per person.
  • Women farmers: Women farmers produce more than half of all food worldwide and currently account for 43 percent of the global agricultural workforce, yet women own just 2 percent of global farmland.
  • Natural disasters: During 2011, a total of 820 natural catastrophes were documented, causing an estimated 27,000 deaths and costing a record $380 billion in economic losses.
  • Wage growth: Among the global workforce, wage growth has slowed from an average of 3 percent in 2007 to 2.1 percent in 2010 and 1.2 percent in 2011.
  • Water scarcity: Some 1.2 billion people----almost one fifth of the world----lives in areas of physical water scarcity, which occurs when annual supplies per person fall below 1,000 cubic meters.

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