72% of humanity in an ‘ecological poverty trap’

Three out of four people live in countries that are doubly cursed with both a below-average income and a natural resource scarcity, according to a new study.

The research found that overall, the world is spending 173% of its natural resource capacity, confirming the unsustainability of our current way of life. Richer nations are spending more of this capacity than poorer nations, which will also face more consequences and poverty from ecological loss.

All life depends on the productivity of the surrounding ecosystem for food, shelter, clean water, and waste absorption. But as humans increasingly dominate natural environments, we are demanding far more biological resources than the Earth can provide.

The joint US-Sri Lankan research team set out to investigate how this massive overuse is making biological resources scarcer and therefore limiting economic development.

By comparing the biological capacity of a country to its consumption footprint, the team concluded that as of 2017, 72% of humanity lives in a low-income country that is using up more natural resources than it actually has. This has jumped up from 57% in 1980.

“This trend not only erodes their possibilities for maintaining progress but also eliminates their chances for eradicating poverty, a situation we call an ‘ecological poverty trap’,” the authors explain in their paper, published in Nature Sustainability.

This low-income group, totalling 5.3 billion people, spent 96% of the world’s “biocapacity” in 2017 – even though the countries they live in contain only 34% of this biocapacity.

Meanwhile, another group – comprising one billion people living in high-income countries, or around 14% of the world’s population – were spending a further 52% of the planet’s biocapacity.

“If all humanity consumed at that level, it would take 3.67 planet Earths to meet our demand,” the authors note.

The team stresses that this ‘ecological overshoot’ is a barrier to eradicating poverty and famine. While in the past, famine may have been due to unequal access to resources rather than actual scarcities, the Anthropocene may have fundamentally shifted this dynamic.

“The Anthropocene is marked by unprecedented global change leading to declining global ecosystem health and rising pollution, consistent with global ecological overshoot,” the authors write.

“Biocapacity constraints, while previously local and distributional in nature, are now emerging on a global scale as documented here. Therefore, succeeding with poverty eradication will be impossible without a focus on biological resource security.”

The team suggest options for development strategies that promote both resource security and human well-being, including focusing on conservation and restoration; designing efficient cities; phasing out fossil fuels; improving food production and shifting consumption habits; and encouraging smaller families to slow population growth.

Haydn Washington, an environmental scientist from the University of New South Wales who was not involved in the study, says he agrees with the recommendations of the paper but believes a more fundamental paradigm shift is required.

“It is an interesting paper but it remains stuck in the anthropocentrism that I believe is one of society’s key problems,” Washington explains.

“As an ecocentric scientist I have a problem with the focus on ‘resource’, where all plants and animals become mere things for human ‘use’ and ‘development’ and ‘progress’ – outdated ideas that have led society to ecological disaster.

“The paper is thus quite anthropocentric, and certainly doesn’t call for a change in worldview or ethics to put society on a sustainable path.”

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