Rachel's Democracy & Health News #868, August 16, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: If everyone lived at the standard of the industrialized countries, it would take two planets comparable to the planet Earth to support them, three more if the population should double, and, if worldwide standards of living should double over the next 40 years, twelve additional "Earths." ...We have been obsessed by thinking, hoping, deluding ourselves that we can somehow go on forever with business as usual, but [we] simply cannot. -- Peter H. Raven]

By Peter Montague

[Here we continue summarizing two important articles by biologist Peter H. Raven, who was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) during 2002: his presidential address to the AAAS in 2002, and a companion piece.

In part 1 of this series, Dr. Raven pointed out that the human population was 2.5 billion in 1950 and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. It is roughly 6.3 billion today. As humans expand their domination of the earth, other species are being squeezed out. Dr. Raven cites projections that 2/3rds of all species will disappear from the earth during this century.

In some instances we have changed the order of presentation of facts from Dr. Raven's essays. Text inside square brackets is our editorial comment.--P.M.]

The Present Human Standard of Living

About a quarter of humanity lives in what the World Bank defines as absolute poverty, on less than $1 per day. Depending on the criteria used, between an eighth and a half of the world's people are malnourished, with about 700 million of us literally starving. Some 14 million babies and young children under the age of four starve to death each year, at the rate of 35,000 per day.

In the world's poorest societies, women and children are literally disenfranchised, having to spend most of their time foraging for firewood or water, and unable to gain the benefits of education, which would enable them to contribute to the progress of their societies, or our own. Such relationships are inevitable in a world in which 20 percent of us control 80 percent of the total resources, and 80 percent of us have to make do with the rest.

The empowerment of women is one of the most critical needs for building a sustainable world for the future -- it simply cannot be postponed further, says Dr. Raven

In our country, where only about 4.5 percent of the world's people live, we control about 25 percent of the world's wealth, and produce 25-30 percent of the world's pollution. Clearly, we are dependent on the stability and productivity of nations all over the world to maintain our level of affluence: the time has long passed when we could act on our own, and rely on our own resources to maintain our standard of living. In the face of these relationships, it is remarkable that the United States, the richest nation that has ever existed on the face of the Earth, is the lowest donor of international development assistance on a per capita basis of any industrialized country. [All sources of U.S. aid combined, including federal, corporate, church, foundation, and individual total $60 billion, or $200 per person per year.]

The Human Footprint

"In the world as a whole, human beings are estimated to be using, wasting, or diverting nearly half of the total products of photosynthesis, which is essentially the sole source of nutrition not only for humans, but for all of the other organisms on Earth. Thus we, one of an estimated 10 million or more species, appropriate for ourselves half of the total biological productivity of our planet, while our numbers, our increasing levels of affluence (consumption), and our use of inappropriate technologies all increase our share of the total with every passing year," says Dr. Raven.

When it had become definite that India would attain independence, a British journalist interviewing Gandhi asked whether India would now follow the British pattern of development. Gandhi replied immediately "It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require?"

Ecological Footprint Analysis

A population's EF [ecological footprint] is the total area of productive land or sea required to produce all the crops, meat, seafood, wood and fiber that it consumes, to sustain its energy consumption and to provide space for its infrastructure. Viewed in these terms, the Earth has about 11.4 billion hectares of productive land and sea space. Divided by the current world population of 6.3 billion people, this amounts to about 1.8 hectares per person. [One hectare = 2.47 acres.]

The actual Ecological Footprint of an individual, however, is very unequal around the world: 1.3 hectares per person in Africa or Asia, about 5.0 hectares in Western Europe, and about 9.6 hectares in North America. The world consumer's average EF in 1999 was 2.3 hectares per person, so that we are about 22% beyond the planet's capacity to support us on a sustainable basis. We support ourselves, in a world in which 800 million people receive so little food that their brains cannot develop normally and their bodies are literally wasting away; three billion people are malnourished; and 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 per day, by means of a gigantic and continuing overdraft on the world's capital stocks of water, fossil energy, topsoil, forests, fisheries and overall productivity. We use the world, its soils, waters, and atmosphere as a gigantic dumping ground for pollutants, including the pollutants that render much surface water unusable, the carbon dioxide that is contributing directly to global warming and the atmospheric pollution that kills millions of people around the world annually.

It is estimated that the world's Ecological Footprint was about 70% of the planet's biological capacity in 1970, reaching 120% by 1999. And our population growth, demand for increased consumption, and continued use of inappropriate technologies are rapidly driving the ratio upward, indicating that we are already managing our planet's resources in an unsustainable way, much as if we used 30% of the funds available in our bank account each year with the expectation that they would somehow be replenished, or because we just didn't care.

We continue to assume that developing countries will somehow reach the level of the industrialized ones currently, while our good senses should tell us that that cannot be the case without making extraordinary changes in our assumptions and in the ways that we live.

In fact, Wackernagel and Rees have estimated that if everyone lived at the standard (rate of consumption, equivalent technologies) of the industrialized countries, it would take two planets comparable to the planet Earth to support them, three more if the population should double, and, if worldwide standards of living should double over the next 40 years, twelve additional "Earths."

Aspirations to such a standard of living everywhere are clearly unattainable, and yet advertising continues to reassure us that it is both appropriate and achievable, Dr. Raven says.

"Even those of us who live in rich countries continually strive to seek to increase their standards of living by increasing their levels of consumption," Dr. Raven observes.

"The paradox presented by these relationships can be solved only by achieving a stable population, finding a sustainable level of consumption globally, accepting social justice as the norm for global development, and developing improved technologies and practices to make sustainable development possible," says Dr. Raven.

The world view that so many of us share seems an unsuitable one for building a sustainable world, Dr. Raven says.

"In essence, we have been obsessed by thinking, hoping, deluding ourselves that we can somehow go on forever with business as usual, but [we] simply cannot," Dr. Raven concludes.

Then he shifts gears somewhat:

January 6, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, addressing Congress: "In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world."

For reasons that are starkly obvious, we are now focusing our attention massively on terrorism and the problems associated with terrorism. As the months go by, the real challenge facing us, however, will be whether we will come to regard the events of September 11 as specific and short-term, or whether we build on the events in analyzing their underlying causes and learning how to deal with those causes. Many of us agree with Leon Fuerth, who eloquently stated on the occasion of a recent forum in Washington, "A world in which the fate of poor and hungry people is of no interest to us is not a world in which we will ever be safe."

"[S]imply appropriating as much as possible of the world's goods and processing them as efficiently as possible can never be a recipe for long-term success, and ignorance of environmental principles can never assist us to lay proper foundations for a sound future. Perhaps if we had fully accepted the vision presented to us sixty years ago by President Roosevelt, and truly worked to make it a reality, we would now be on the way to achieving a peaceful and sustainable world. But it is not too late to accept that vision now," Dr. Raven says.

Ultimately, as those who have been considering the matter carefully over the past several months have come to realize, there is often no way to deter a committed terrorist, regardless of how clever and vigilant we may be. Consequently, the only way to build a secure world is to change both that world and our way of thinking about it.

[W]e can clearly find our way to a sustainable future only by achieving a sustainable population, finding a sustainable level of consumption globally, accepting social justice as the norm for global development, and finding the improved technologies and practices that will help us make sustainable development possible, Dr. Raven concludes.

[Continued next week.]