November 1, 2011


Why is our consumption falling?: Everyone believes that consumption is out of control. But is it? From food to paper and water, Britain has gradually been guzzling less over the last decade. Why? (Duncan Clark, 10/31/11,

"One thing that's remarkable is the sheer speed with which our resource use has crashed since the recession," [environment writer Chris] Goodall continues. "In the space of a couple of years, we've dropped back to the second lowest level since we started keeping track in 1970. And although the figures aren't yet available for 2010 and 2011, it seems highly likely that we are now using fewer materials than at any time on record."

Goodall discovered the Material Flow Accounts while writing a research paper examining the UK's consumption of resources. The pattern he stumbled upon caught him by surprise: time and time again, Brits seemed to be consuming fewer resources and producing less waste. What really surprised him was that consumption appears to have started dropping in the first years of the new millennium, when the economy was still rapidly growing.

In 2001, Goodall says, the UK's consumption of paper and cardboard finally started to decline. This was followed, in 2002, by a fall in our use of primary energy: the raw heat and power generated by all fossil fuels and other energy sources. The following year, 2003, saw the start of a decline in the amount of household waste (including recycling) generated by each person in the country - a downward trend that before long could also be observed in the commercial and construction waste sectors.

In 2004, our purchases of new cars started to fall - as did our consumption of water. The next year, 2005, saw our household energy consumption starting to slump (notwithstanding an uptick last year due to the cold winter). And in 2006 we seem to have got bored with roads and railways, with a decline in the average distance travelled on private and public transport. All of this while GDP - and population - went up.

Other consumption categories have been falling for much longer, Goodall points out. Despite concerns about the increasing intensity and industrialisation of our farming, the amount of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilisers being applied to British fields has been falling since the 1980s. Our consumption of cement reached a peak at a similar time.

Even our intake of food is falling. Although obesity is on the rise, the total number of calories consumed by Brits has been on a downward slope for around half a century, driven by the fact that, compared with previous generations, we do less exercise now and live in warmer homes. Perhaps more remarkably, our intake of meat - the food most regularly highlighted as an environmental concern - seems to have been falling since 2003.

Goodall's research sends a counterintuitive message. We might expect to have been getting through less stuff since the financial crash of 2008; but surely throughout the boom years of 1990s and noughties, our rate of material consumption was steadily climbing in step with GDP?

Not according to Goodall.

Posted by at November 1, 2011 5:59 AM

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