Contradicting Developments

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On Monday 6 February the ISN examined three different ways of thinking about development. High up on the international agenda are both human development and sustainable development. That makes sense. After all, those of us who are lucky enough to lead healthy and fulfilling lives still make up a minority of the world’s population. Too many people are trapped in conflict zones, live in fear of oppression, or do not even get a basic education. At the same time, climate change, resource depletion and environmental pollution have become serious security issues, and many would agree that effective measures to counter a number of worrying ecological trends need be implemented sooner rather than later.

But just how sustainable is human development? Well, as the following chart illustrates, until now it has not been sustainable at all. The chart plots countries’ HDI scores against their ecological footprint. The HDI score measures human development. The ecological footprint, which was explained in more detail in yesterday’s blog, tells us how many planets would be required if every person in the world wanted to have the same lifestyle as the average citizen in a given country:

Unfortunately, countries with a higher Human Development Index (HDI) also tend to have a high ecological footprint. A high HDI-score is clearly a good thing. Conversely, an ecological footprint of more than 1.0 means that a society is currently using too many resources. Put another way, such a lifestyle is unsustainable. For example, if every single individual in the world were to live like the average Norwegian in 2011, we would need almost six planets (i.e. six times the resources available on our planet). To sustain the 2011 US-lifestyle worldwide, eight planets are needed, for the Swiss one, five, for the Chinese one, more than two, and so on. Overall, the Global Footprint Network calculated that “today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste.” 1.5 planets may seem surprisingly low compared to the footprints of most individual countries, but one must bear in mind that 1) a minority of humanity uses most of the planets’ resources and 2) we only have one planet, so a score of 1.5 is already too high.

Does that mean that a high HDI score is necessarily incompatible with a sustainable ecological footprint? After all, only developing countries currently have an ecological footprint of 1.0 or lower. Well, I would argue that this need not be the case. Denmark and Japan, for instance, both have identical HDI scores (0.89). However, Denmark’s ecological footprint (8.3) is much higher than Japan’s (4.7). Of course, Japan is also using too many resources, as do all developed countries and many developing ones. But this contrast suggests that ecological footprints can be lowered without compromising human development. Obviously, this will not happen automatically – as current trends remain in the opposite direction. For more information on this, check out the Global Footprint Network’s Sustainable Development Initiative.

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