Even as inequality and temperatures soar around the world, global consumption—a driving force behind economic and climate crises alike—has skyrocketed to levels never before experienced on Earth, according to a new analysis from the Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues.
"Once we see ourselves as part of the larger puzzle, we are better able to choose what we buy, how we eat, and for whom we cast our ballot."
—Gaelle Gourmelon, Worldwatch Institute
This year's Vital Signs report, released Tuesday, tracks key trends in the environment, agriculture, energy, society, and the economy. It shows that "from coal to cars to coffee, consumption levels are breaking records."
Yet "consumers often do not know the full footprint of the products they are buying, such as the embedded water in a t-shirt or steak, the pesticide exposure of cotton farmers, or the local devastation caused by timber companies cutting down forests to produce paper," said Michael Renner, Vital Signs project director.
Indeed, writes Worldwatch Institute's Gaelle Gourmelon, "our consumption choices affect more than ourselves—they affect the environment and the lives and livelihoods of millions."
For example, the report points out, global meat production has more than quadrupled in the last 50 years to over 308 million tons in 2013—bringing with it considerable environmental and health costs due to its large-scale draw on water, feed grains, antibiotics, and grazing land.
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"Beef is by far the most intensive of meats, requiring more than 15,000 liters of water per kilogram of meat produced," writes Gourmelon, suggesting that ending factory-style livestock operations and eating less meat could help diminish the sector's impact. "Beef production also uses three-fifths of global farmland despite its yield of less than 5 percent of the world’s protein and less than 2 percent of its calories."
Another notable finding from the analysis: while Western Europeans and North Americans consume the most plastic per person, using 100 kilograms of plastic per person each year, just a fraction of that is recycled. In the U.S., for example, only 9 percent of plastic was recycled in 2012.
"As consumers, we influence the landscapes and lives of those who live near the extraction, manufacturing, disposal, and other impacts of the products we use every day," Gourmelon concludes. "Once we see ourselves as part of the larger puzzle, we are better able to choose what we buy, how we eat, and for whom we cast our ballot."
The Worldwatch Institute's infographic, below, illustrates more staggering statistics: