Source: World Resources 2000-2001
Author: Gregory Mock
Date: June 2000

Consumption of food, wood, and the many other products that come directly from the world’s ecosystems has risen steadily for decades, increasing pressure on these vital systems. But responsibility for this pressure is not shared equally. Consumption levels are far higher in wealthy nations than in middle or low-income nations. How much do you consume?


Humans consume goods and services for many reasons: to nourish, clothe, and house ourselves, certainly. But we also consume as part of a social compact, since each community or social group has standards of dress, food, shelter, education, and entertainment that influence its patterns of consumption beyond physical survival (UNDP 1998:38-45).

At its best, consumption is a tool for human development—one that opens opportunities for a healthy and satisfying life, with adequate nutrition, employment, mobility, and education. Poverty is marked by a lack of consumption, and thus a lack of these opportunities. At the other extreme, wealth can—and often does—lead to excessive levels of material and nonmaterial consumption.

In spite of its human benefits, consumption can lead to serious pressure on ecosystems. Consumption harms ecosystems directly through overharvesting of animals or plants, mining of soil nutrients, or other forms of biological depletion. Ecosystems suffer indirectly through pollution and wastes from agriculture, industry, and energy use, and also through fragmentation by roads and other infrastructure that are part of the production and transportation networks that feed consumers.

Consumption of the major commodities that ecosystems produce directly—grains, meat, fish, and wood—have increased substantially in the last four decades and will continue to increase as the global economy expands and world population grows. Plausible projections of consumer demand in the next few decades suggest a marked escalation of impacts on ecosystems (Matthews and Hammond 1999:5).

  • Global wood consumption has increased 64 percent since 1961. (See Figure 1.) More than half of the 3.4 billion cubic meters of wood consumed annually is burned for fuel; the rest is used in construction and for paper and a variety of other wood products. Demand for lumber and pulp is expected to rise between 20 and 40 percent by 2010. Forest plantations produce 22 percent of all lumber, pulp, and other industrial wood; old-growth and secondary-growth forests provide the rest (Matthews and Hammond 1999:8, 31; Brown 1999:41).

Demand for Wood Increasing

  • World cereal consumption has more than doubled in the last 30 years, and meat consumption has tripled since 1961 (Matthews and Hammond 1999:7). (See Figures 2, 3.) Some 34 percent of the world’s grain crop is used to feed livestock raised for meat (USDA 2000). A crucial factor in the rise in grain production has been the more than fourfold increase in fertilizer use since 1961 (Matthews and Hammond 1999:14). By 2020, demand for cereals is expected to increase nearly 40 percent, and meat demand will surge nearly 60 percent (Pinstrup-Andersen et al. 1999:11).

Meat Consumption Triples  

Cereal Consumption Doubles

  • The global fish catch has grown more than sixfold since 1950 to 122 million metric tons in 1997. (See figure 4).Three-fourths of the global catch is consumed directly by humans as fresh, frozen, dried, or canned fish and shellfish. The remaining 25 percent are reduced to fish meal and oil, which is used for both livestock feed and fish feed in aquaculture. Demand for fish for direct consumption is expected to grow some 20 percent by 2010 (FAO 1999:7, 82; Matthews and Hammond 1999:61).

The Unequal Geography of Consumption
While consumption has risen steadily worldwide, there remains a profound disparity between consumption levels in wealthy nations and those in middle-income and low-income nations.

  • On average, someone living in a developed nation consumes twice as much grain, twice as much fish, three times as much meat, nine times as much paper, and eleven times as much gasoline as someone living in a developing nation (Laureti 1999:50, 55). (See Figure 5.)

High-Income, High Consumption

  • Consumers in high-income countries—about 16 percent of the world’s population—accounted for 80 percent of the money spent on private consumption in 1997—$14.5 trillion of the $18 trillion total. By contrast, purchases by consumers in low-income nations—the poorest 35 percent of the world’s population—represented less than 2 percent of all private consumption. The money spent on private consumption worldwide (all goods and services consumed by individuals except real estate) nearly tripled between 1980 and 1997 (World Bank 1999:44, 226). (See Figure 6.)

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