Rachel's Democracy & Health News #868  [Printer-friendly version]
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.

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

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

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

[Continued next week.]