Why are material flows important?

History reveals that human development and related economic activities have always been closely linked to the control and production of materials. Stone, Iron, Bronze and Steel Ages - the names of these periods have been determined according to the main materials in use. Other than hides, wood and natural fibres, which have sustained humanity ever since its existence, flint, granite, limestone and sandstone have been the main materials in use up until about 4,000 B.C. With the discovery of bronze and later iron, however, the development of civilisations started to reach a pace unrivalled in the history of mankind. The introduction of new tools produced from metals radically altered human labour, nutrition and warfare. The industrial revolution marked a fundamental change of the energy system based on fossil fuels and saw the introduction of yet more materials. Coal, steel and aluminium allowed to tremendously increase industrial output and efficiency. With the start of the commercial exploitation of crude oil in the late 19th century, the doors have been opened to a new era which one day might be called the "Oil Age".

Gathering information on human's material consumption is important, as many of today's most pressing environmental problems are directly linked to our material use. Today, total global consumption of renewable and non-renewable natural resources amounts to more than 70 billion tonnes per year. Taking into account all the materials that are extracted but not actually used to create value in economic processes (i.e. overburden or "ecological rucksacks"), this number reaches far beyond 100 billion tonnes. The use of fossil fuels is the main cause for global warming and climate change, harvest of biomass (timber, agricultural products) entails land cover and land use changes with negative impacts on biodiversity as well as water scarcities, the use of metals and chemicals causes toxic impacts on ecosystem and human health.

Given the current trends of global growth in material use (see Trends), a dematerialisation strategy, i.e. a dramatic absolute reduction of our material consumption, will be inevitable - especially in industrialised countries, in order to avoid transpassing our “Planetary Boundaries” and an overconsumption of the available "environmental space". The latter concept claims that the total amount of natural resources that humankind can use without damaging the global ecosystems in an irreversible manner is limited. Furthermore, the concept states that each inhabitant of the planet should in principle have an equal right to use the world's natural resources, i.e. a “fair share”. Given the fact that global resource use at current levels is already unsustainable, an increase in material consumption of in particular developing countries to ensure at least a minimum level of quality of life must be compensated by a decrease in resource use of industrialised countries. Serious efforts to international development must thus be accompanied by a reduction of the environmental space occupied by the rich countries in order to allow for poorer nations to increase their material welfare.  

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