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Living beyond our means: We are burning through the planet’s resources, living an unsustainable way of life

“The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed,” warned Mahatma Gandhi. And yet nations are practicing an unsustainable way of life at the cost of burning up Earth’s resources, reported The Daily Mail.

The study comes from Leeds University, where researchers boiled down the requirements for a “good life” into 11 items. Basic needs included minimum daily income of $1.90, a minimum lifespan of 65 years, and steady supplies of electricity and food. It also had social goals like employment, a supportive network of family & friends and true democracy.

Researchers also categorized how much it costs the planet to fulfill these needs. These costs include COemissions, water consumption and the depletion of natural resources. (Related: Radioactive contamination detected outside plutonium plant.)

To facilitate comparison and contrast, the researchers published individual websites for 150 countries that documented their resource consumption and achievements in well-being.

The Leeds study determined that a country expends planetary resources to achieve social goals.

Progress at all costs?

According to lead author Dr. Daniel O’Neill, every action consumes resources. Yet humans often fail to realize the connection between their actions and the environment.

In the course of the study, he and his team estimated that the countries of the world could fulfill the basic needs of their populations without exhausting planetary resources.

“Unfortunately, the same is not true for other social goals that go beyond basic subsistence such as secondary education and high life satisfaction,” Dr. O’Neill added. “Meeting these goals could require a level of resource use that is two to six times the sustainable level.”

For example, the study notes that Western Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, the U.S. and Canada scored high on the social threshold. But those same countries received low environmental scores, which meant they could not sustain their social achievements indefinitely.

The U.S., in particular, failed to attain any of the environmental sustainability goals, The Daily Mail reported.

“Our results suggest that some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such as combating climate change and its impacts, could be undermined by the pursuit of other goals,
particularly those focused on growth or high levels of human well-being,” said Dr. Andrew Fanning.

Of the 150 countries covered by the Leeds research team, only 16 met all seven environmental goals. The country that achieved the best balance between goals is Vietnam, which fulfilled six out of 11 social goals and six out of the seven environmental goals.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Swaziland. The sustainability score of the landlocked southern African country is as bad as those of China, South Korea and the U.K.

In fact, researchers took note of 35 countries that could only achieve one or none of the 11 social goals for a good life.

Reversing the course

Another co-author, Dr. William Lamb, observed that wealthy nations satisfied the basic needs of their citizens by burning up resources at an unsustainable rate. In contrast, countries with sustainable levels of resource usage, such as Sri Lanka, cannot deliver basic needs of their people.

“Radical changes are needed if all people are to live well within the limits of the planet,” argued co-author Dr. Julia Steinberger. She called for nations to revise their economic priorities, rapidly switch to renewable energy, and redistribute wealth on a more even basis.

“Our physical infrastructure and the way we distribute resources are both part of what we call provisioning systems,” Dr. Steinberger explained.

“If all people are to lead a good life within the planet’s limits then these provisioning systems need to be fundamentally restructured to allow for basic needs to be met at a much lower level of resource use.”

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