All-You-Can-Eat Economy is Making the World Sick

We're eating more meat, drinking more coffee, popping more pills, driving further and getting fatter. Around the world we are consuming more than ever before: but more than one billion people still don't have access to safe water; natural disasters are taking a worsening toll; and we have yet to vanquish some of the world's biggest killers-diarrhea, malaria and AIDS-reports a new publication by the Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2001: The Trends That are Shaping Our Future.

"We're finding more and more evidence that the developed world's consumption-filled lifestyle choices are often as unhealthy for ourselves as for the planet we inhabit," said Worldwatch researcher and Vital Signs Project Director, Michael Renner. "And while much of the world remains too poor to afford such choices, the emerging middle classes in developing nations are following the same damaging patterns pioneered in the developed world: meat and coffee consumption is on the rise, as is obesity and over half of the world smokers are now in developing nations."

This 10th anniversary edition of Vital Signs-made possible with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the W. Alton Jones Foundation-illustrates how an economy geared only towards meeting insatiable consumer demand can adversely affect human, environmental, and economic health. A greater reliance on cars not only heats up the planet but also leads to more sedentary lifestyles-a major cause of obesity. The development of lucrative drugs to treat diseases of the First World is keeping money away from critical research on vaccines and medications aimed at diseases like malaria that afflict far larger portions of the world population. Industrial farming practices have created one of the most gruesome crossovers of disease from animals to humans, Bovine or 'Mad Cow' disease.

"The challenge of this new century is to extend the economic progress of the last 50 years, while halting the ecological decline -- a sick planet will, sooner or later, lead to a faltering economy," said Executive Director of UNEP, Klaus Toepfer. "The question is whether humanity will forge a healthier, sustainable future or risk the downward spiral as a result of not understanding the ecological and economic threshold the world is now on. I hope that the statistical snapshot contained in Vital Signs 2001 will help fill this information gap."

In a year when oil prices hit a 15-year high, car production also peaked. The world's fleet of passenger vehicles reached 532 million in 2000. At the same time, average fuel economy remained stagnant at mid-1980's levels. Just before the Bush Administration effectively pulled out of the Kyoto protocol, Americans were driving their cars further than ever before. Total U.S. carbon emissions were 13 percent higher than they were in 1990.

While technological innovation soars, 90 percent of commercial energy use worldwide continues to come from fossil fuels. Alternative energy sources such as wind still only account for one percent of the world total, reports Vital Signs 2001.

"Living in the 21st century, we like to think of ourselves as sophisticated, post-modern, technology-savvy world citizens," Renner said, "but the truth is that our cyber economy is still fueled by the same old energy sources. And as long as consumers do not demand change, manufacturers will continue to churn out environmentally destructive products."

Gasoline, aluminum and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics-which are manufactured through highly polluting processes-represent the resource binge we're on. Consumer demand for common items such as automobiles, aluminum cans and children's toys spurs these industries. But while alternatives are available for almost every PVC use and aluminum recycling requires only five percent as much energy as primary production, little pressure is being placed on manufacturers to change production methods.

Our appetite for meat has also been soaring. The number of four-footed livestock on earth at any given moment has increased 60 percent since 1961, and the number of chickens, ducks and other fowl, has quadrupled, from 4.2 billion to 15.7 billion.

Feedlot production-the fastest growing method for raising livestock-has emerged as a major threat to soil, air and water quality. In the U.S., livestock produce 130 times more manure than humans do. Though concentrated in North America and Europe, feedlots are also popping up near urban centers in Brazil, China, India, the Philippines and elsewhere in the developing world. The demand for more meat has also spurred the feeding of antibiotics to farm animals, a practice which has been increasingly implicated in reducing the effectiveness of these drugs in humans.

Drug resistance is rising across a wide range of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that are responsible for diseases from malaria to AIDS. At least half of all antibiotics used in human medicine are prescribed unnecessarily, creating greater opportunities for the survival and spread of resistant bacteria.

Pharmaceuticals are one of the most profitable and fastest-growing industries in the world, increasing from $132 billion in 1983 to $337 billion today. But big pharmaceutical companies have tended to neglect the health of large portions of humanity. All of the world's top selling drugs are designed to treat First World conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, indigestion and obesity. A survey of 1,233 drugs that reached market between 1975 and 1997 found that only 13 were approved specifically for tropical diseases.

In the face of all these changes, Vital Signs 2001 points to some encouraging mass movements that may become major forces in reshaping today's consumerist lifestyles:

  • Growing numbers of people are using socially responsible criteria to guide their investments. In the United States alone, socially responsible investments climbed from $59 billion in 1984 to $2.16 trillion in 1999-or $1 out of every $8 under professional management.
  • As demand for coffee has risen-up 10 percent to 7.1 million tons in 2000 and reaching $11.2 billion in exports-changing consumer preferences are influencing how and where the bean is grown. The vast majority of this coffee comes from full-sun plantations-the ecological equivalent of a rainforest clear-cut. But a growing consumer movement is supporting a return to traditional shade growing techniques, which maintain rainforest habitat and biodiversity. 'Ethical' coffee is now the fastest growing segment of the market and half a million farmers participate in programs that guarantee a fair price and working conditions to growers and coffee workers.
  • The alternative energy sector offers considerable promise in meeting increased energy demands and providing short and long-term solutions to shortages like those in California. Though still a very small market segment, global wind energy generating capacity was up 30 percent over 1999 and production of solar photovoltaic (PV) cells jumped 43 percent.

"The findings from Vital Signs 2001 show that when consumers demand it, environmentally friendly and socially responsible methods of production can be achieved, Renner said. "The power of consumer choice cannot be underestimated; for good or for bad it can sicken or save our planet."

A worldwide perspective on consumption:


  • Largest grain producer: China = 353 million tons
  • Largest producer of milk: India 79 million tons
  • Largest coffee producer: Brazil = 1.8 million tons

Energy and transport

  • Leading petroleum user: United States = 26% of world supply
    (The U.S. constitutes less than 5% of world population)
  • Highest carbon emissions: United States = 24% of world total
  • Largest manufacturer of solar electric panels: Japan = 128 megawatts (enough generating capacity to power 50,000 small homes)
  • Biggest producer of bikes: China = 43 million in1999


  • Largest population of smokers: China = 350 million (equal to the combined populations of Russia and Mexico)
  • Leading cigarette exporter: United States (21% of world exports)
  • Largest population of overweight adults: United States = 61% of adult U.S. population
  • Biggest buyers of pharmaceuticals: US = almost 40% of world sales
  • Biggest selling drugs: antiulcerants (antacids, for indigestion) = $15.8 billion

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