Progress, development, expansion, prosperity, growth – these words are intrinsically embedded in humanity’s aspiration to constantly improve the quality of our existence.
In the pursuit of constant growth, humanity today taps into natural resources at a level never before seen.
Total global resource use has increased from six billion tonnes in 1990 to an unprecedented 60 billion today and per capita levels of resource consumption are at their highest level in history.
Growing demand is outstripping raw material supply. It takes the planet 18 months to replenish the natural resources we consume in a year.
Forecasts suggest that, based on current consumption levels and future population growth, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us by 2030.
These numbers are predicted to increase as income levels rise across the developing world and a new consumerist middle class emerges. The International Labour Organization forecasts that the middle class in emerging economies will grow by 309 million by 2017.
On the face of it, that’s good news. Lifting people out of poverty helps power economic growth, but all too often this growth is driven by unbridled consumerism which ultimately leads to resource scarcity.
The seventh session of the UN General Assembly open working group on sustainable development goals, which took place earlier this month in New York, battled with the concept of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) and the need to decouple living standards and economic growth from unsustainable resource use.
SCP can be broadly defined as having two interrelated objectives: achieving well-being for all people, while keeping the negative environmental impacts of socio-economic activities to within Earth’s resource capacity.
In this debate, the question is not to discontinue growth, the challenge is: how do we shift from a society of consumption of products and services to a society based around well-being and sustainable living?
In 2013, a Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda warned: “To continue on this business-as-usual path would be very dangerous.
“Changes in consumption and production patterns are essential, and they must be led by the developed countries.”
The issue raises important questions about the North-South divide. Does the developed North have the moral prerogative to say to the emerging middle class in India, for example, that they should consume less? No! Why should these consumers pay the price for our over- consumption?
The solution doesn’t lie in depriving those emerging economies from enjoying the same standard of living that we’ve become accustomed to. But it does require a new way of thinking about growth and prosperity. Consumption patterns have to change.
A way forward is to focus the debate on efficiency and design as a common goal for both North and South, which can promote social and economic well-being with less use of resources.
We can do this by reducing packaging, developing guidelines for prolonging the lifespan of manufactured products and imposing sanctions against companies that engage in the “programmed obsolescence” of their products so that they become obsolete or unfashionable within a short period of time.
Our desire to have the latest smartphone or tablet is perhaps the starkest example. The likelihood is that your device contains tin – an essential component for the electronics industry – from Indonesia, one of the world’s largest exporters of the metal.
Studies by Friends of the Earth have discovered that the mining industry is having a devastating impact on forests and farmlands in islands such as Bangka and Belitung, which produce 90 per cent of Indonesia’s tin. Sadly, some of the world’s most vulnerable communities are paying the price for our consumerism.
Nature itself holds an important card. Through “biomimicry”, we can harness nature’s designs and mimic them to develop new sustainable products.
Velcro is a great example – it was developed after its inventor observed how prickly burrs (seed pods) stuck to his dog’s fur and his clothing.
The year 2014 holds the promise of being a historic year, when we reached a global consensus on a sustainable framework that addresses the critical question facing our generation: how the world economy can continue to develop in a way that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable.
I hope 2014 marks the year when we decided to engage in a global dialogue on how to do more with less.
Population growth and the explosion of consumerism in the emerging economies means that time is against us. The clock is ticking.
• May East is chief executive of Cifal Scotland, a United Nations institute for training and research sustainability centre based in Edinburgh. See www.cifalscotland.org