conservation sustainability

Living beyond our means: the Living Planet Report 2010

This weekend I’ve been browsing the WWF’s annual Living Planet Report for 2010. They’ve been producing the reports since 1998, and it’s been one of the influences behind Make Wealth History in the past, showing the inequity of our resource use and the over-shooting of the planet’s capacity. Here are some highlights:


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  2. Jeremy it would seem to me that even many environmentalists still don’t look at the big picture as far as footprints. BTW have you read the Lifeboat Ethics article?

    1. I wish this stuff was better understood. There are so many common misconceptions that would be shot down if the facts of this kind of report were known. It should be taught in school. Just one example, the idea that China and India are making all environmental effort obsolete – one look at their per capita consumption compared to the US blows that away.

      On lifeboat ethics, are you referring to Garrett Hardin’s thoughts or something more recent? Hardin’s ideas were very much a product of his place and time, and I think he mis-judges population growth somewhat.

    2. Yes though I still think Hardin has some general relevance even now. Even if China is per capita lower in its resource use many of its citizens would like to live our lifestyle so to me population concerns do come into it. What it does raise for me it matters concerning what ‘right’ do people and nations have regarding number of children and population? After all there are religious groups that use demographics as a weapon to gain more political power.

      I do think if we are going to raise footprint concerns, raise the living standards of developing countries while lowering that of developed people are naturally going to ask why should more heavily populated nations get to have more resources just becuase they allowed their populations to get away from them. Not to forget the complicating factor of historical resource use.

      So even if we were able to get it to a sustainable level there will be an objection that some nations get more than they deserve due to large populations.

      1. Environmental impact is population times consumption. So while some countries let their population run, we let our consumption run. It’s no use asking who gave them the right to increase their population, without asking who gave us the right to increase our consumption. Especially since so many of the resources we use are from poorer countries and technically belong to them!

        Population is half the equation and is very important, but I don’t agree with Hardin’s proposition. He argues that rising populations in poorer countries would run ahead of efforts to redistribute wealth, meaning the richer countries would be impoverished before any equity was achieved. On this basis he argued that it was basically better to keep people out of the lifeboat, ie drowning.

        Even if that was a morally acceptable position, which it isn’t, he misunderstood population increase because he didn’t see the way it would peak.

    3. Jeremy I agree that Hardin’s position is hardly ethical but what interests me is the Lifeboat ethics concept and in particular how we distribute resources on a finite planet that is for all intensive purposes just like a lifeboat. My intuition being that wealth/ownership, birth, education etc that we use at the moment would be unacceptable justifications for any individual or group to have more than anyone else on the life boat. Some would then argue that there would be no incentives for the industrious and the whole system would collapse; now I don’t think it would come to that but that issue-and others- still needs to be addressed.
      I’m also interested in the assumptions for stabilizing population in a economic growth dominated world that is already gone beyond it natural carrying capacity.

      All well and good for countries that have already developed but we don’t have 3-4 planets to do that with everyone else. Can we just rely on educating women and better health services in developing countries to slow things down?

      I also concerned with ‘cheaters’ even in a stable global population in that I would imagine there would be some cultural/religious groups that would be quite happy to continue to grow their populations while others shrink for both political and theological reasons. What then?

      The point being for population and resource use can we rely on people to do the right thing or will it have to be forced on them? Just look at the US with the latest elections and no hope in hell for anything being done on climate change for at least another two years.

      1. Amartya Sen did some interesting work on population, comparing the education and rights based approach in two provinces in India and the coercive policies of China. He found that birth rates actually fell faster in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I don’t think it’s right to dictate what people do with their own bodies, but when people are given the choice, most don’t seem to want to have large families. If you tackle childhood mortality and provide pensions, the incentives for having more children are made obsolete. Those who have more children will simply be poorer than the neighbours, and less able to look after their families.

        So I believe history shows us that coercive tactics aren’t necessary. There will always be free riders, but it is important that those who choose to have lots of children aren’t rewarded for that choice – there’s no need to punish that decision, but you make sure there are no added benefits to be accrued by having more kids.

        The lifeboat idea does offer some interesting perspectives. I think it naturally suggests equality is worth pursuing, that everyone deserves equal shares.

    4. I hope you are right Jeremy but I do know for a fact that there are groups like the Mormons in the US that are having a huge rise in population. I do think this reproductive right will be questioned some time in the future.

      I also wonder though on a national level if people will expect when push comes to shove in the context of climate change and resource depletion, that nations only use as much resources as they have within their own countries. For example if we in fact got people to reach a sustainable footprint level but country X required more resources than it could provide wouldn’t other countries/peoples think that unfair if that country could be thought to have an excessive population and getting more resources that they are entitled to?

      1. That’s where per capita consumption has to be the most important thing. There’s no way a densely populated country like the UK could meet its needs within its own borders, while a large country like Canada will always run a large surplus. World trade will continue to be needed to move things where they’re needed. It wouldn’t be one country getting more than its fair share if everyone, wherever they were, was getting the same amount. And there’d be no incentive to let your population grow too big if you didn’t get any more, per person, than a country with fewer people.

        As for rights, there’s no way to remove the right to reproduce or enforce its removal without massive oppression. What do you do if someone has an unauthorised child? Put them in prison and leave the child in the care of the state? Have forced abortions? I suspect you’re right, and it will be discussed at some point, but it can’t be done. Every time it’s been tried it’s been a human rights disaster, and fortunately, history suggests it isn’t necessary.

    1. I wouldn’t want to speak for WWF, but I certainly see a contraction and convergence model as the only fair way of dealing with both injustice and sustainability. If you just look at sustainability, you end up with countries held back from developing. If you just look at poverty, you end up with massive environmental damage and the rapid depletion of non-renewable resources.

      The poorest will only be able to improve their lifestyles if we scale back ours, and that’s the reason for the Make Wealth History title.

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