To save the earth it is essential to change consumption patterns

A crowd in a mall in Robinson,
Pennsylvania, USA,
(Photo: David Fulmer/Flickr/CC)

The production and trade indicators that are usually used to measure prosperity are the product of unsustainable consumption patterns in the richest social sectors and countries, and these patterns promote the plundering of natural resources, damage the environment and do nothing to reduce poverty. The Social Watch Report 2012 enhances our understanding of this phenomenon and of proposals to set concrete limits that will be put forward next June at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio 2012).

These proposals are aimed at making a transition to a sustainable production and consumption model by establishing controls and sanctions against unsustainable practices. They include imposing taxes to discourage wastage, abolishing subsidies for activities that damage the environment or consolidate or foster inequities, and granting subsidies to promote local industries, consumption in poor households and the use of environment-friendly technologies in the fields of energy, transport, housing and social infrastructure.

All the chapters of the Social Watch report agree that – particularly in these times of crisis - the new approach must not jeopardise the stability of markets for basic products, which are vitally important for the developing countries of the South, or the recovery of labour and decent work markets in poor countries.

What is needed is “a wider understanding of sustainable development, which encompasses a revision of the overall production and consumption trends in the world today”. In addition, principles like “equity, fairness, and common but differentiated responsibilities” must be given priority. According to the Arab Non-Governmental Network for Development (ANND), “This would necessitate re-orienting investment, trade and finance policies to focus on these objectives, including harnessing regional cooperation on these fronts towards increasing production and demand at the national and regional levels.”

Twenty years ago, at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, the leaders of the world stated that “the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries ... which aggravates poverty and imbalances.” As Roberto Bissio, the international coordinator of Social Watch, remarks in the introduction to the report, “This is as true today as it was in 1992.”

At the 1992 Earth Summit, the industrialised countries agreed “to take the lead in shifting away from unsustainable consumption patterns”. However, as Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network remarks in another chapter of the report, “These (patterns) have remained largely unchanged, and have spread to developing countries, with the wealthy adopting similar lifestyles while poverty eradication continues to be elusive.”

According to Chee Yoke Ling, “With income inequalities sharpening in all countries, over-consumption and unsustainable consumption dominates production choices (and hence natural resources use and financial resources allocation) while the poor and marginalised are deprived of a dignified standard of living.”

In the Social Watch report, Mirjam van Reisen of the University of Tilburg and Simon Stocker and Georgina Carr, both of Eurostep, give the example of Europe’s economic development. This “has been fuelled by both the consumption and depletion of global resources, resulting in wealth generation for the region but environmental degradation at home and abroad. Much of this development has relied on acquiring resources in third countries” and is based purely on self-interest.

The Eurostep article also points out that “The world’s wealthiest nations have drawn disproportionately on the planet’s non-renewable natural resources,” and to counteract this “requires a radical and urgent transformation in current approaches to economic growth and stability and to patterns of production and consumption.”


Not high income, but clean and virtuous

According to the ANND chapter about the Arab World, one consequence of this scenario in the developing South is that plunder is still the dominant model today, “and problems such as climate change, soil degradation and water scarcity have emerged as global threats to biodiversity, food sovereignty and security, the livelihoods of various communities around the world and the overall right to development.”

The Social Watch report includes a preliminary declaration about Rio 2012 by the Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development, which states that “little has been done to change patterns of production and consumption that pollute, erode biodiversity and lead to climate change, while commitments to human rights and gender justice have not been fulfilled. We are facing societal and ecological disaster.”

Unsustainable development is inextricably bound up with wasting energy, but the Social Watch Basic Capabilities Index (BCI) shows that while 13% of the world’s population is responsible for 50% of carbon dioxide emissions, “…45 countries with a total population of 1.2 billion people have managed to achieve social indicators that are better than the world average with per capita emissions of CO2 … below the world average.”

Furthermore, as Bissio notes in the introduction to the report, “none of them are labelled as “high income” countries. “Yet, the members of that group of the “clean and virtuous” have no recognition or compensation for their achievement. Quite the contrary; similar to other middle-income countries and those considered as “least developed,” they often find their space for making domestic policy choices to achieve sustainable development squeezed by external demands, conditions and impositions that press them to take steps such as slashing tax rates and cutting spending on social services.”

Bissio goes on to say “there is no direct relation between better progress on social indicators and CO2 emissions”. For example, “with carbon dioxide emissions of three tonnes of per capita a year, Costa Rica and Uruguay have managed to lower their infant mortality rates to the same level as a country that emits 20 tonnes a year: the United States. At the same time, with the same level of emissions as Norway, South Africa has a set of social indicators similar to that of Indonesia, which consumes five times less fossil fuels.”



The Reflection Group is made up of important members of Social Watch, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, terre des hommes, the Third World Network, the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, DAWN and the Global Policy Forum. Its analysis is that “we have exceeded the ecological limits and ignored the planetary boundaries. With the climate change threat, we are already living on borrowed time… The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants.”

The Reflection Group proposes solutions including the imposition of fiscal measures. “Any form of indirect taxation should be designed in a way that is sensitive to the poor’s welfare by introducing progressivity (e.g. by taxing luxury consumption) and mitigating the regressive features.” Moreover, “By redefining priorities, public spending policy can become a powerful tool to reduce social inequalities and remove discrimination and to support the transition towards sustainable production and consumption patterns.”

These measures would include “the abolition of harmful subsidies” such as those that support agro-exports, international investment, the water sector, the energy sector (for example, to reduce the cost of fuel), forestry and fishing.

In addition, governments should increase beneficial subsidies that stimulate “sustainable production and consumption” and the redistribution of wealth. They should also help by promoting “emerging local industries and introducing environmentally friendly technologies in areas such as renewable energy, sustainable and affordable public transport systems, eco-efficient housing, social infrastructure, and consumption subsidies to poor households.”

These recommendations are echoed in the chapter by Miloon Kothari, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, and Shivani Chaudhry, Associate Director of the Housing and Land Rights Network of India. “The principle of mutual responsibility and sustainability is critical – especially with regard to the environment and the use of land, water, electricity and other resources. There have to be enforceable checks… and penalties for excessive use.”

Kothari and Chaudhry mention various controls and sanctions including a tax on the “consumption of certain critical resources such as water and other energy resources beyond a certain amount to secure minimal levels of consumption for all and to ensure environmental security. This principle also calls for the sustainable and responsible management of natural resources, including energy.”

Social Watch Report 2012: