What does it take to produce the goods and services that underpin our lives? A detailed study of Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United States shows that for highly industrialized economies, the total volume of natural resources required can be staggering – in the range of 45 to 85 metric tons of material per person each year .
That value is relevant today because industrialization is proceeding rapidly in many nations and will play a large part in the four- or fivefold expansion of the global economy expected over the next 50 years. But is it sustainable? The kind of resource-intensive production that is commonplace in developed countries probably cannot be replicated in a large number of other countries without causing serious environmental harm .
|How much do industrial economies use?|
|Direct Inputs and Hidden Material Flows as a Proportion of Total Material Requirements of Selected Economies, 1991|
|Source: A. Adriaanse et al., Resource Flows: The Material Basis of Industrial Economies, a joint publication of the World Resources Institute (WRI), the Wuppertal Institute, the Netherlands Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment, and the National Institute for Environmental Studies (WRI, Washington, D.C., 1997), p 13.|
Specifically, this type of production often requires moving or processing large quantities of primary natural resources that do not end up being used in the final product. (See How Much do Industrial Economies Use?) For example, fabricating the automobiles and other metal-intensive products for which Japan is well known requires mining and processing a yearly per capita equivalent of about 14 metric tons of ore and minerals . Growing the food required to feed a single U.S. resident causes about 15 metric tons of soil erosion annually. In Germany, producing the energy used in a year requires removing and replacing more than 29 metric tons of coal overburden for each German citizen, quite apart from the fuel itself or the pollution caused by its combustion .
These hidden material flows from mining, earth moving, erosion, and other sources – which together account for as much as 75 percent of the total materials that industrial economies use – are easy to ignore because they do not enter the economy as commodities bought or sold and thus are not accounted for in a nation