When population, consumption collide

15 09 2011


John Kalkowski — Packaging Digest, 9/12/2011 4:57:15 PM

Americans needn’t look far to realize that we are consuming the world’s resources faster than Nature can replenish them. Jared Diamond, author of the fascinating book, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” says that the rate of resource consumption and waste production in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia is about 32 times higher than it is in the developing world. The populations of those countries add up to about 14 percent of the world’s population, yet they (or should I say “we”?) account for 60 percent of private consumption spending.

People in developing countries also aspire to a higher consumption lifestyle. Just imagine what would happen if residents of these developing countries ever catch up.

The Earth currently is home to nearly 6.5 billion humans, and it’s estimated the population will grow to 9 billion before 2050. The Sierra Club writes that rapid population growth, coupled with high levels of consumption, are stressing our limited natural resources, which also is creating a number of social and political tensions around the world.

Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding says that because we are using resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished, we are eating into the future. He writes that the Global Footprint Network, an alliance of scientists, calculates that current global growth is consuming the equivalent of 1.5 Earths. That’s the amount of land and water we need to produce the resources we consume and absorb our waste using current technology. If everyone in the world consumed at the same rate we do in the U.S., the New Economics Foundation estimates it would take 5.3 Earths to be sustainable.

China is the world’s fastest growing economy, with 1.3 billion people, yet their per capita consumption rate is about 11 times below that of the U.S. If China catches up with the U.S. on a per capita basis, it would roughly double world consumption, Diamond estimates.

So, why should any of this matter to those of us in the packaging industry of the world’s richest country? After all, the day when the resources we need for packaging are depleted won’t happen in our own lifetime. But it will happen at some point.

It is said that a business that is not growing is dying. To most U.S. businesspeople, that usually means breakneck growth in manufacturing, sales, consumption and waste.

As Diamond writes: “Just as it is certain that within most of our lifetimes we’ll be consuming less than we do now, it is also certain that per capita consumption rates in many developing countries will one day be more nearly equal to ours.”

We have to find a way to grow our businesses in a sustainable manner. In many areas, we have the capability to do so. It’s a matter of social, political and individual will. In other words, it’s up to you and me.




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