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Can We Provide for 7 Billion People Without Wrecking the Planet?

No country in the world meets the basic needs of its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use. That is the sobering message of a paper that my colleagues and I recently published in Nature Sustainability.

To arrive at this conclusion, we examined how well countries are doing in addressing a host of contemporary environmental issues: climate change, overuse of fertilisers, unsustainable water extraction, and physical material use, among others.

We also looked at the pressing social challenges that countries face, such as delivering access to essential services, including household electricity, running water, and sufficient daily nutrition. Often these ‘basic’ material deficits sit alongside deep inequalities in wealth, education, and employment opportunities. 

Our research suggests these social and environmental crises are intertwined. Concentrated economic power begets resource exploitation, either directly through consumption (individual wealth goes hand in hand with high carbon emissions), or indirectly through the everyday decisions of investors, lobbyists and industrialists to block reform and pursue profit at all costs.

At the same time, economic poverty is strongly associated with a lack of access to sufficient material resources. Food requires land and nutrients. Shelter, transportation and healthcare require materials (buildings, infrastructures). Above all, energy is needed to move, illuminate and heat the spaces we use in daily life.

Unless we fundamentally restructure how resources are used and distributed across society, it will be difficult to strike a balance between human well-being and environmental harms.

Although wealthy countries such as the UK, Germany and the US satisfy the basic needs of their citizens, they do so at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable. In contrast, countries that have a globally sustainable level of resource use (such as Sri Lanka) fail to meet the basic needs of their people. Our interactive website shows these results in depth.

If everyone on Earth were to raise their standard of living to what might be considered a good life, global resource use would be pushed to a level that is 2 to 6 times the sustainable limits.

Although these results are stark, they are a needed reminder that social policy should be considered in the context of environmental issues. Societies should prioritise policies which deliver large gains in well-being at little or no resource impact, such as reduced work hours and improved social support.

Above all, a new social contract is needed, where environmental harms are taxed, and dividends are distributed to public goods – towards education, healthcare, zero-carbon transportation, and sustainable housing.

By revitalising the democratic sphere and building political support, progressive social movements have a central role to play in pushing through these sweeping changes.

William F. Lamb is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change