WASHINGTON - Humans are devouring more food, material goods, and natural resources than ever before and the worldwide pursuit of prosperity and material luxury is stoking environmental and security problems, according to a new report on trends shaping the planet's future.
Increased production and consumption of everything from grain and meat to oil and cars reflects strong economic growth in 2004, says ''Vital Signs 2005'', released this week by the Washington-based research group Worldwatch Institute.
But the social and environmental costs of economic growth go largely unnoticed, the report says. Pollution is rising, ecosystems are being degraded, and many of the world's poor people, shut out from the gains of economic growth, are being left further behind.
''We have by no means freed ourselves from the material world and its persistent threats,'' said Christopher Flavin, Worldwatch president.
The study highlights the example of China, which it describes as ''a global force that is driving consumption and production of almost everything through the roof.''
This, the report says, is most evident in Chinese demand for oil and steel. Oil consumption in the world's most populous nation surged by 11 percent last year to 6.6 million barrels a day, fueling the fastest rate of increase in world oil consumption in 16 years.
"In terms of scale, it is as if all of Europe, Russia, and North and South America were simultaneously to undertake a century's worth of economic development in a few decades," the report says.
To be sure, China's economy has boomed -- it grew by a robust nine percent in 2004 -- and a small but growing elite already has come to enjoy living standards that rival those of U.S. consumers.
But these material gains, sustained by industrial growth, have led to predictable environmental problems that pose serious threats to people and the planet.
Air pollution alone is estimated to cause some 590,000 premature deaths per year in China and the country's economic growth has led to a jump in its emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Scientists blame these gases, released mainly when oil and coal are burned, for global warming.
China emits 47 percent more carbon dioxide than it did in 1990 and in 2003, it accounted for half the global increase. The country now ranks second, behind the United States, in global carbon emissions and these are projected to keep increasing apace with rising demand for energy and cars, the report says.
While large developing countries like China and India will have a major impact on the world's future, the report also says that wealthy nations with small populations and ''sky-high consumption patterns remain a major threat to the global environment.''
The United States, for example, is home to five percent of the world's population but spews more than one-fourth of the world's greenhouse gases. Likewise, it accounts for a quarter of global oil consumption, guzzling an estimated 20 million barrels of oil every day.
Such skewed consumption patterns reflect and reinforce the growing gap between the world's richest and poorest people and nations -- a gap that has more than doubled since 1960, according to the Worldwatch report.
More than half of the world's 6.3 billion people live on less than two dollars per day, it says. More than one billion people lack safe water, proper nutrition, basic health care, and social services needed to survive.
World production of grains, meat, and fish rose in 2004 but the number of hungry people also rose for the first time since the 1970s. And despite healthy economic growth, a record number of people were without work or were looking for a job in 2003.
In these figures, the Worldwatch report sees a persistent cause of instability across the developing world.
In the Middle East, where 58 percent of the population is under the age of 25, one-fourth of young people of working age are unemployed.
Rather than boost job creation or use their wealth to address social, health, and environmental problems, many nations have responded to the security concerns raised by large and unemployed populations by increasing defense spending, the report says.
Military spending worldwide rose to 932 billion dollars in 2003, an increase of almost 20 percent since 2001 and the United States spends ''almost as much as all other countries on Earth combined,'' it says.
By contrast, the world's donor countries spent a scant 68 billion dollars in 2003 on official development aid and rich countries are failing in their pledge to fund the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, the report says.
Announced in 2000, the goals include halving global poverty and malnutrition, reducing infant and maternal mortality, and improving access to health care and education, all by 2015.
Less than one-fifth of all countries are on course to meeting targets that also include halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015 and improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020, the report says.
Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service