If we gave everyone a decent standard of living, could we sustain it?
Could we meet the needs of everyone on the planet without stripping the Earth of all its resources? A paper in this week’s Nature Sustainability says: kind of.
It should be possible to meet the basic physical needs of everyone on the planet without using up physical resources too quickly. But it wouldn’t be possible to extend a first-world standard of living to everyone without needing “a level of resource use that is two-six times the sustainable level,” researcher Daniel O’Neill and his colleagues report. Only a drastic improvement in efficiency would allow the planet to manage this higher standard of living.
O’Neill and his colleagues looked at the resources that humans use a lot of and that are critical for the planet’s health: things like fresh water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Exceeding the “planetary boundaries” of these resources risks global environmental stability—and we’re not doing well on that front.
The new paper assesses around 150 countries for their performance at meeting a series of human needs, ranging from the very basic (nutrition, sanitation, and freedom from extreme poverty) to the more advanced (like equality and democratic quality). They used the data to assess how well countries are doing at meeting their citizens’ needs and how much they’re eating into the planet’s resources to achieve this. To achieve global utopia, every country on the list would need to meet all of its citizens’ needs without exceeding its share of planetary resources.
Instead, unsurprisingly, an interactive graphic shows that the countries that are doing well on quality of life are hogging the resources, while the countries that aren’t hogging resources generally lag on well-being. Wealthy countries like the US, Canada, France, and Japan are generally doing well by their citizens but are blazing through planetary boundaries. Countries like Malawi and Nepal aren't gobbling up resources, but they also aren't meeting well-being thresholds.
The relationship isn’t perfect, though: some countries have to deal with the worst of both worlds. Turkey, Mongolia, South Africa, and Swaziland are doing particularly badly—they’re transgressing on five or six of the seven planetary boundaries the researchers assessed, while meeting well-being targets on zero (Swaziland) to three (Mongolia) of the 11 well-being thresholds.
On the other hand, some countries get high marks with much less. Vietnam stands out of the crowd, meeting six of the well-being targets while transgressing only two planetary boundaries. Germany does a smidge better than other wealthy countries, hitting all well-being targets but only five of the seven planetary boundaries.
O’Neill and his colleagues point out that the efficient countries give reason for hope: “Some nations are able to achieve the social thresholds at a much lower level of resource use,” they write. “These results give a sense of the possibility space for achieving the social thresholds within planetary boundaries.”
On the other hand, they add, if population growth continues on its current path, the problem will become more and more complicated. It may be possible to meet the basic physical needs of everyone on the planet—as long as “everyone on the planet” is still less than seven billion people. As the population increases, the need for efficiency increases, too.
Things like democratic quality and equality don’t directly produce high standards of living, but they are associated with them. These items have less of a clear relationship to resource use: getting everyone food and healthcare is linked strongly to physical resources, but getting everyone social support is a different ball game. Extra consumption of resources isn’t as closely tied to advanced needs, the researchers suggest.
This implies that wealthy countries should be able to reduce their consumption without reducing their quality of life. But this would require a shift from the pursuit of GDP growth to what the researchers term “alternative economic models such as a steady-state economy.”
This grading system has some rough edges—for instance, it makes the assumption of an average per-person distribution of resources, when the reality is that some regions will always have a higher need or footprint than others. Water-scarce areas, for example, have to use more resources in maintaining their water supply.
Future research will need to address some of these complications if we want to come up with more precise estimates. But this is a start at answering the question of what a sustainable world that takes care of everyone could look like and what it would take to get there.