Climate change as discussed at the climate talks in Durban is just one of the complex impact that humans have on the natural environment. The history of humanity is closely linked to benefiting from (or exploiting) the natural environment in order to improve living conditions. “Stone, Iron, Bronze and Steel Ages – the names of these periods have been chosen according to the main materials in use“ (see materialflows.net). Over a long period in human history, this behaviour had only little impact on the environment from a global perspective (not least because there were much fewer people around). This has changed considerably since the industrial revolution started spreading across the globe from its British roots. “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 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’” (see materialflows.net). With growing populations, and an increasingly more intensive and extensive use of natural resources, the human impact on the environment has reached an unprecedented level which has such an impact that the environment becomes considerably transformed by human action. This led to the proclamation of a new geolocial era, the Anthropocene, which pays tribute to the “influence of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries“, which is said to be “so significant as to constitute a new geological era for its lithosphere” (quoted from Wikipedia).
Extraction of natural resources is one component of this change (amongst many other factors), which often stands at the beginning of the chain of changing and influencing the natural environment. Fossil fuels, minerals, metal ores, and other resources are taken out of their natural deposits, which already has an impact on the environment at the places where they are, and are then burned, processed, and eventually dumped in manifold transformed ways. Material extraction and the subsequent flows of them during their ‘human lifecycle’ (before we regard them as useless waste) are an important element in the understanding of our impact on the natural environment. “A dematerialisation strategy, i.e. a dramatic absolute reduction of our material consumption, will be inevitable – especially in industrialised countries – taking into account the concept of ‘environmental space’. This concept claims that the total amount of natural resources that humankind can use without damaging the global ecosystems is limited” (see materialflows.net).
In a collaboration with Worldmapper, the Materialflows project has released a series of cartograms as part of their online portal for material flow data which gives an insight into the shares and dimensions of global resource exploitation. On the basis of the MFA-database we created a series of cartograms where territories are re-sized to different categories of material flows. Here are two examples from the map series that demonstrate some of the aspects investigated in the project. The two maps show the total resource extraction and the fossil fuel extraction in 2007:
More maps and a lot more information about the topic can be found on www.materialflows.net, which “is an online portal for material flow data, providing access to material flow data sets on the national level. The website is based on the worldwide first comprehensive database on global resource extraction, set up and administrated by SERI (Sustainable Europe Research Institute) in cooperation with the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy. The database comprises data for more than 200 countries for the time period of 1980 to 2008, aggregated into 12 categories of material flows” (see materialflows.net).