Sinking under fat America

State of the World 2000

September 8, 2000

American overconsumption is damaging us all, says John Whitelegg.

The number of people who are overfed and overnourished is now equal to the number who are undernourished and underweight: roughly 1.2 billion. Life expectancy in Zimbabwe in 1988 was 44 years and, largely as a result of Aids, is expected to be 39 years in 2010. It takes 1,000 tons (US measurements are used) of water to produce 1 ton of grain. Obesity costs the United States $118 billion a year, and the costs of meat eating (hypertension, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, gall stones, food-borne illnesses, and so on) is in the range of $29-61 billion a year. A new chemical substance is discovered every nine seconds of the working day.

If the reader of environmental texts and critical commentaries on the key issues of the day is looking for sharply focused quotes and "hold the front page" news items, then this book is better than anything else around.With an obvious eye on the sound bite and the quotable quote, the authors of this wide-ranging collection of essays have marshalled an impressive catalogue of information and analysis that really does show the sad state of the global economy and environment at the start of the 21st century.

State of the World is an annual publication that first appeared in 1984. It has been prepared by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC since then and published for most of that time in the UK by Earthscan. The year 2000 edition presents the reader with a fairly eclectic set of essays that range over environmental "surprises", irrigated agriculture, the underfed and the overfed, organic pollutants, the paper industry, information technology, micropower, creating jobs and preserving the environment, and coping with ecological globalisation. This does not amount to a "state of the world" assessment. It is a very interesting and well-written set of essays but this does not deliver a global assessment or audit of current problems and how far we have moved (positively or negatively) since the last assessment. Readers looking for a state-of-the-world report in terms of key indicators, trends, comparison with baselines and comparison with desirable "states", from ecological footprinting or environmental capacity analysis, will have to look elsewhere. In this sense, the book has a very deceptive title.

The book is also misleading in a more serious sense. The opening chapter by Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, "Challenges of the new century", frequently returns to the population issue and fails to make a link with consumption. He displays a worrying emphasis on population levels independent of an analysis of the consumption characteristics of that population. This slant is not helpful in understanding the dynamics of environmental problems.

Brown lists seven environmental trends, the first of which is population growth. But nowhere does he identify the insatiable demands of the average US citizen for cars, fossil fuels, flying, water and chemicals as either an environmental trend or an environmental problem. He goes on to say: "The projected growth in population over the next half-century may more directly affect economic progress than any other single trend, exacerbating nearly all other environmental and social problems."

This is poor stuff. At the very least it is necessary to link population with consumption: the ecological footprinting approach to understanding environmental problems. Brown goes on to complain about population growth causing difficulties in water supply. Why does he not mention the US per-capita consumption of water for domestic purposes, agriculture, golf courses, and so on? The average Indian or Bangladeshi citizen has an awareness of water and its importance vastly in excess of a citizen of California. Surely if we are going to try to understand water problems we must first try to understand why water consumption in the affluent North far exceeds that of the South. We must then try to understand whether or not we can aim for US levels of consumption in Bangladesh. To miss all this is fundamentally to misunderstand the ecological and environmental dynamics of the planet.

Consumption and equity issues also fail to get the coverage they deserve in the remainder of the book. The chapter "Nourishing the underfed and the overfed" is an exception and provides excellent documentation on the impact of overconsumption of food in the US. Nonetheless, it still fails to make the links with global equity issues and the need for economic restructuring so that reductions in overconsumption in the North can be linked to improvements in consumption levels in the South.

The chapters of the book invariably contain high-quality insights into complex problems. Hunger is clearly defined as a product of human decision-making. The activities of large multinationals in marketing and advertising fast food are clearly identified as part of the problem. The huge environmental impacts of paper manufacturing and paper use are laid bare. To make a ton of paper, 2.0-3.5 tons of trees are brought to the mills. Paper uses more water to produce a ton of product than any other industry. Micropower (decentralised small-scale power) offers enormous potential to reduce dependence on large, wasteful fossil fuel-based power plants; micropower also offers thermal efficiencies of 80-90 per cent compared with the 30 per cent typical of "today's centralised power system".

State of the World 2000 has its environmental peculiarities. It does not give any recognition at all to aviation as a fast-growing source of environmental problems. The impact of flying on the global environment should be at or near the top of any environmental policy agenda. It should certainly appear on the lists given in this text but it does not. Even worse, the mention of the Sydney Olympics propagates the entirely inappropriate "Green Games" label. The 7,000 tons of carbon that are "saved" each year by the "green" Olympic village will be swamped by the carbon from the aircraft taking thousands of visitors to the games. Similarly, Amory Lovins's green car is rolled out as an example of best practice. The implications of the spread of US levels of car ownership and use to India and Bangladesh are simply ignored. This is sloppy thinking.

The Worldwatch Institute should be congratulated on producing such a compelling and well-researched book each year for 16 years. But readers should be warned that what they are getting is a set of essays that is just as interesting for what it excludes as for what it contains. The searchlight of inquiry is turned off when it comes to the massive overconsumption of everything by US citizens. It is equally dim in identifying the enormous contribution made to global sustainability by those regions (mainly in Asia) whose ecological footprint is a tiny fraction of the US level.

John Whitelegg is professor of environmental studies, Liverpool John Moores University.

State of the World 2000

Author - Lester R. Brown
ISBN - 1 85383 680 X
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £12.95
Pages - 5

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