[SCMP Column] Pillaging the planet

May 26, 2018

It seems we are making great progress in lifting people out of poverty, giving them better education, and improved health care – but only by consuming resources at a rate that punishes the planet.

A fascinating piece of research by a team at Leeds University in the UK, examining the performance of around 150 countries worldwide in terms of their social progress, and the unsustainable damage they are inflicting on the environment, shows a dreadful link. We simply don’t seem to be able to improve people’s livelihoods without at the same time using more resources than the planet can afford.

No-one is doing well – except, improbably, Vietnam (see chart) – and worst of all is the US, which is one of five countries that are exceeding their “quota” of resource use or environmental harm by every one of the seven criteria measured by the team led by Daniel W O’Neill, who leads the Economics and Policy for Sustainability Research Group at the University of Leeds.

The team took eleven measures of social progress – life satisfaction, years of healthy life, Nutrition, sanitation, sufficient income, access to energy, education, social support, democratic rights, income inequality and employment rates – and found huge progress not just among the rich western economies, but also among large numbers of still-relatively-disadvantaged countries. Surprisingly, countries like the Philippines, India and South Africa seem to have made poor progress.

But map all of those high-achieving countries in terms of their planetary footprint, and this progress seems to have come at a very high price. Taking seven impacts on limited global resources – the amount of materials a country uses, their land and ocean exploitation, crop and forest losses, freshwater use, nitrogen discharges, phosphorous discharges, and CO2 emissions – the team discovered that the only countries living within the limits of sustainability were poor countries that have made poor social progress. Countries like Bangladesh, Malawi, Pakistan, Ghana, Zambia – and yes, the Philippines, India and Indonesia.

Mapping this story on the chart (see illustration) you see an inexorable shift from the bottom right to the unsustainable top left. Even Germany only manages to stay within sustainability limits by two of the seven measures – crop and forest losses, and freshwater use.

If our future is going to be sustainable, it looks like we have to stay impoverished, or find some way of growing up towards the top left hand corner of the chart. Quite why Vietnam is alone in seeming to have made progress in this direction is a puzzle the academic team does not explain.

Of course, the story the research reveals is widely recognized – except in “flat earth” parts of the US that do not buy the facts on global resource depletion and climate harm. In a bit of a platitude, study leader O’Neill points to a solution: “Wealthy nations can consume less, with no loss in quality of life.” Oh yes?

Look to work by the likes of the Copenhagen-based team at the Technical University of Denmark in their website “The World Counts”, you see with alarming clarity the disequilibrium that is pushing the world’s resources to the brink. At current demand for resources, “we are only good for a global population of 2 billion”, the academic team calculate. Pity we have a world population past 7.2m and headed towards 11bn.

“The World Counts” puts emphasis on three precariously depleting resources – water, oil and forests. Without specifically flagging the Cape Town drinking water crisis, it notes that only 2.5 per cent of the world’s water is fresh water, with 70 per cent of this frozen as ice. Of this precarious 0.75 per cent, Intensive agriculture is consuming 70 per cent, and industry a further 20 per cent. That leaves less than 0.1 per cent available for us to drink – and much of this is polluted. In India an estimated 580 people die every day because of diarrhea from dirty water, and in China 500m people do not have access to safe drinking water. Expect more Cape Town crises in future.

On oil, they note that the International Energy Agency calculates that oil provides over 40 per cent of all the energy we use, with supplies for no more than 25 more years. It notes that 18m acres of forest are being destroyed every year, with half of the world’s original forest cover now gone. The resulting deforestation, desertification, species loss and erosion threatens us all. We read of this often, and still do little to redress the balance.

Our western “hyperconsumptive” culture – now being enthusiastically emulated in countries like China and India as people move out of poverty – is of course only making things worse. Read Annie Leonard’s “Story of Stuff” and you will discover that the US accounts for 5 per cent of world population, but 30 per cent of resource use, and 30 per cent of waste. If US consumption patterns were applied to the world, we would need the resources of between three and five earths.

It seems we are not just a world of compulsive consumers, but also a world of compulsive wasters. Food discarded every year in the US and the UK alone would meet the nutritional needs of 1.5bn people, Leonard notes. Half of all Christmas gifts are “regifted”, and 99 per cent of the “stuff” we buy is trashed within six months.

The troubling news is that we are overusing available planetary resources at a prodigious rate, putting our future gravely in jeopardy. The good news is that our wastefulness is so egregious that there is massive scope to cut back on resource use if we can muster the will. But with the singular and unexplained exception of Vietnam, there is no present evidence that any one of us are moving up into that top left corner of the chart. It needs to start soon.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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