Planetary vital signs — good and not-so-good news

July 15th, 2013 | by K Kaufmann | Comments

The folks at the Worldwatch Institute know how to write a lead paragraph that will grab your eyeballs and keep you reading.

“In 2012, global oil consumption reached an all-time high, the number of workers in vulnerable employment exceeded 1.5 billion people, and physical water scarcity affected some 1.2 billion people.”

That’s the first sentence in the press release from the institute that landed in my email box Monday, announcing Vital Signs: Volume 20, the latest edition of a series in which the institute compiles facts and figures on key vital trends showing the economic, enviromental and overall societal health of our plant.

Needless to say, I kept reading and emailed back immediately for a review copy of the report so I can dive in, drill down and see how things do or do not connect. In the meantime, here are a few highlights from the press release:

– Coal: Global coal production increased by 6,941 million tons in 2011, making coal the fastest growing fossil fuel. Spurred mainly by rising demand in China and India, coal’s share in the global primary energy mix reached 28 percent in 2011–its highest point since record-keeping began in 1971.

– Wind power: Global wind power capacity grew by 21 percent in 2011–lower than the 2010 rate of 24 percent and markedly lower than the 2009 rate of 31 percent.

– Automobile production: Passenger car production rose from 60.1 million vehicles in 2010 to 62.6 million vehicles in 2011–and 2012 brought a new all-time record of 66.1 million vehicles.

– Meat production and consumption: Global meat production surpassed 300 million tons for the first time in 2012; annual meat consumption increased just 0.4 percent to 42.5 kilograms (about 93.7 pounds) per person.

– Women farmers: Women farmers produce more than half of all food worldwide and currently account for 43 percent of the global agricultural workforce, yet women own just 2 percent of global farmland.

– Natural disasters: During 2011, a total of 820 natural catastrophes were documented, causing an estimated 27,000 deaths and costing a record $380 billion in economic losses.

– Wage growth: Among the global workforce, wage growth has slowed from an average of 3 percent in 2007 to 2.1 percent in 2010 and 1.2 percent in 2011.

– Water scarcity:  Some 1.2 billion people–almost one fifth of the world–lives in areas of physical water scarcity, which occurs when annual supplies per person fall below 1,000 cubic meters (264,000 gallons; an average U.S. household of four can use around 400 gallons per day).

“Our economic systems and theories are programmed to squeeze ever more resources from a planet in distress,” said Michael Renner, Worldwatch senior researcher and director of the Vital Signs project. “A mixture of population growth, consumerism, greed, and short-term thinking by policymakers and business people seems to be inexorably driving human civilization toward a showdown with the planet’s limits.”

There is good news as well –

– Globally, sanitation and water access for 227 million people was improved between 2000 and 2010 to the point where these individuals are no longer considered slum dwellers.

– Within the agriculture sector, efficient irrigation methods have increased more than sixfold over the last two decades, and organically certified agricultural land has more than tripled since 1999.

– Meanwhile, socially sustainable ways of doing business continue to emerge: about 1 billion people in 96 countries belong to a co-operative, whether as a worker, consumer, producer, or purchaser. Similarly, the emergence of so-called “benefit” corporations offers a more socially and environmentally responsible model for private firms.

“There is no shortage of alternatives to change the destructive trajectory that humanity finds itself on,” said Renner. “Renewables and efficient irrigation are two practical options among many others. But we need to get serious about these tasks instead of consigning them largely to the margins.”

For more interesting information, check out the Vital Signs website at

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