Magazine article World Watch

New Measures of Material Consumption

Magazine article World Watch

New Measures of Material Consumption

Article excerpt

Individuals in the United States, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands consume an average of 45 to 85 metric tons of natural resources per year, according to a new joint report from several international environmental organizations. That is roughly equal to 300 shopping bags full of natural resources per person per week.

The report, Resource Flows: the Material Basis of Industrial Economies, adds to a growing body of alternatives to traditional accounting that aim to gauge the ecological costs of natural-resource use more accurately than basic economic indicators. Economic accounting often disregards the costs of many ecologically disruptive activities - erosion of agricultural and forestry lands, waste accumulation from mining, manufacturing, or oil refinement, and so on. But the report aims to make these "hidden" resource flows economically tangible by measuring the "Total Material Requirements" (TMR), or the sum of all resources used to produce products or services regardless of monetary value. For example, Germany's use of coal for power requires extracting and removing 29 metric tons of earth per person per year. And in the United States, agricultural production causes 15 metric tons of topsoil erosion per person per year. These are ecologically significant resource flows that are generally not reflected in market prices.

Measuring the total resource requirements of the four countries studied reveals that hidden flows make up a striking 55 to 75 percent of the total resources utilized. In other words, traditional economic accounting understates the dependence of industrial economies on natural resources by more than half - vastly underestimating the scale and consequences of economic decisions and subsequent resource flows on the environment.

In addition, the report shows that economies that rely heavily on the export of their primary natural resources are forced to pay an unfair share of the associated environmental costs, while those that are heavy importers or consumers of those resources pay less than their share. …

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