Decoupling Resource Consumption from Economic Growth and Human Prosperity

UNEP report makes the case for a new prosperity based on economic decoupling from resource consumptionIn a report released last week, the United Nations Environmental Program projects that aggregate natural resource consumption could triple from current levels by 2050, to an average total of 140 billion tons  of ores, minerals, biomass, and fossil fuels per year.  The report warns that “the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is far beyond what is likely sustainable” and calls on governments to “decouple” economic growth from the rapid rate of resource consumption.

With a world population expected to reach nine billion-plus people by mid-century, along rising prosperity in developing countries, it is essential, the report says, to “realize that prosperity and well-being do not depend on consuming ever-greater quantities of resources.”

The UNEP said there are already growing shortages of essential raw materials, including oil, copper, and gold. As these resources become rarer, extracting what is available will require more fuel and water to produce (think deepwater offshore drilling).

The concept of decoupling does not mean stopping growth, but learning how to do more with less, especially in the developed world, the report suggests. Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, says that rich countries find a way to “freeze” per capita consumption as a means of not only alleviating the environmental destruction from uncontrolled rates consumption, but also to avoid runaway prices and increased global conflict.

“Decoupling makes sense on all the economic, social and environmental dials,” Steiner told the Daily Telegraph. “People believe environmental ‘bads’ are the price we must pay for economic ‘goods.’”

“However, we cannot, and need not, continue to act as if this trade-off is inevitable. Decoupling is part of a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy needed in order to stimulate growth, generate decent kinds of employment and eradicate poverty in a way that keeps humanity’s footprint within planetary boundaries,” he said.

Redefining human prosperity

In his book Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson lays a foundation for coming to grips with the unsustainability of current rates of consumption, calling into question the false dichotomy between environmental stewardship and economic growth and redefining the idea of human prosperity :

“The prevailing vision of prosperity as a continually expanding economic paradise has come unravelled,” Jackson writes. “Perhaps it worked better when economics were smaller and the world was less populated. But if it was ever fully fit for purpose, it certainly isn’t now.

Climate change, ecological degradation and the spectre of resource scarcity compound the problems of failing financial markets and economic recession. Short-term fixes to prop up a bankrupt system aren’t good enough. Something more is needed. An essential starting point is to set out a coherent notion of prosperity that doesn’t rely on default assumptions about consumption growth.”

Only through serious reexamination of the basis of human prosperity in relation to resource consumption will the world be able to balance the growing aspirations of more and more people. As economies in the developing world grow, they are in a position to align their growth within principals of sustainability. At the same time, rich nations will need to aggressively decouple their economic growth from increasing rates of resource extraction and consumption. The balance is only achieved when the seemingly disparate needs of both worlds find common ground within the limits of the one world we all inhabit.

Many may see the choice as a zero-sum game – winning comes at the loss of another. But if “winning” is defined as prosperity now and for future generations, then pitting winners against losers is the road to ruin.

“At the heart of the book lies a very simple question,” writes Jackson in his book. “What can prosperity possibly look like in a finite world, with limited resources and a population expected to exceed 9 billion people within decades? Do we have a decent vision of prosperity for such a world? Is this vision credible in the face of available evidence about ecological limits? How do we go about turning vision into reality?”

First steps of a decoupled economy

Some decoupling of growth to rates of consumption has already started, the UNEP report states. World gross domestic product rose by a factor of 23 through the course of the 20th century, with resource use only rising by a factor of eight. The urbanization and increasing focus on sustainable urban development is lowering per capita consumption – but it isn’t enough, the UNEP warns. Current decoupling is relative and “at a rate that is insufficient to meet the needs of an equitable and sustainable society,” the report said.

The UNEP urges “significant changes” in government policy, corporate behavior, and individual consumer demands. Whether that happens or not does not reduce the inevitability of significant change of one sort or another in the coming decades.

The world our children will inhabit will not look like the one in which we now live, just as the world I was born into fifty-two years ago could only imagine what has now come to pass in the early 21st century. If change is assured the choice is then not to try to stop it, but to guide it in a direction sustainable growth and prosperity for the whole human endeavor.

Additional sources and further reading:
UNEP report home: Decoupling: natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth
Report summary (pdf)

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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