Help WRI turn ideas into action all over the world.

You are here

Critical Consumption Trends and Implications

Degrading Earth's Ecosystems

Argues that production and consumption patterns are integrally linked and entire use cycle must be considered to understand environmental effects, identify potential interventions, and articulate effective policy approaches.

Executive Summary

Chronic, human-induced imbalances in major biological systems---for example, nutrient cycling, inter-species relationships and food chains---are more insidious than acute incidents of pollution or other damage. Their consequences, however, may be much harder to reverse, and more serious for the developmental and security prospects of every country.

  • Consumption trends, and the associated impacts on natural ecosystems are of universal importance and interest to countries in all geographic regions and income groups.
  • No line can easily be drawn between the developed and developing countries. Consumption in the agriculture, forest, and fishery sectors is rising in every major world region; although at different rates.
  • Ecosystem damage is occurring in many regions, although it has progressed further in some.
  • The economic and social impacts are being felt by people everywhere, either directly in their daily livelihood or, less directly, in the form of higher prices and reduced quality of life. Demand is being fueled in part by basic needs such as nutrition and literacy, not merely by "lifestyle" preferences.
  • None of these resources is easily substituted. Demand management and technological advances can therefore do only so much to slow demand: consumption will inevitably increase in coming years.

These examples demonstrate how current practices are undermining the biological systems which support key renewable resources, exploiting them in such a way that potentially ever-lasting supplies are being depleted. Other examples could have been chosen: fossil fuel use is changing the global climate, water engineering projects have profoundly altered freshwater habitats.

In many cases, wasteful, inefficient or short-sighted production and consumption patterns are putting at risk whole ecosystems, disrupting their normal functioning and reducing their potential productivity, now and for the future. This is perhaps the most unsustainable aspect of human economic activity today.

The scenarios for 2010 presented here are daunting. At the same time, they are not inevitable.

  • Rising consumption needs can be met, but that they should be met in more imaginative ways.
  • Possible solutions use familiar policy concepts and currently available knowledge and technologies. Imagination is required only to summon the will to put them into effect.

Attempting to meet the world's future consumption by simply doing "more of the same" will accelerate ecosystem degradation and will undermine the very productivity we are striving to increase.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletters

Get our latest commentary, upcoming events, publications, maps and data. Sign up for the weekly WRI Digest.