Academic Research Reviews, Ecosystems, Planetary boundaries, Wellbeing

Quality of life versus planetary thresholds – Leeds academics lay bare the scale of the challenge

New research (1) (and an accompanying interactive website (2)) led by researchers from the University of Leeds shows the current inability of a single country to provide a high quality of life without transgressing critical climatic and ecological boundaries. Key planetary thresholds are downscaled for over 150 nations and compared against their achievement of a number of social indicators. It seems that countries either underdeliver on human wellbeing, or push the planet towards breakdown.  

After enjoying playing with the comparison tools on the university’s excellent new “the good life” website, there has to be a serious pause for thought. The take-home message from Dr Dan O’Neill et al.’s recent research is that we are failing as a species, as a community of nations on a shared planet, to provide ourselves with high quality lives within the physical means of our home. This is enough to cut through any loose debate on ‘sustainability’. The standard of living in wealthy nations cannot be replicated across the globe – unless we begin to change the relationship between resource use and quality of life, that quality cannot be sustained.

It is a grim conclusion. Yet we cannot afford to cover our eyes and ears – it is crucial to appreciate the gravity of our current predicament. This is the reality and the sooner we come to terms with it, the sooner we can proactively seek collective solutions. In this vein, what lessons can we take from the research?

Firstly, the view of human society within the framework of “a safe and just space for humanity” (inspired by Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ concept (3)) is a useful one for us all to adopt. If we calibrate our view of the world with one of social minimums and planetary maximums, this not only gives us a realistic, fair and engaged base for our own outlook on life, but also will likely lead to life choices big and small that make positive contributions instead of harmful ones. This has perhaps even more relevance for policy-makers and business leaders. Important policies and economic decisions must now start pursuing sets of plural social factors whilst minimising or reducing the biophysical impact, instead of chasing GDP.

Secondly, the disparity between high wellbeing, high damage-causing rich nations and their poorer counterparts should recast our view of our own lives with renewed humility. We (in the UK for instance) are not a success story if the material quality in our country has come off the back of an exhaustion of ecological and climate capacity. The study shows how it is the more ‘physical’ human needs (sanitation, access to energy, nutrition, income) that are correlated closest with resource use – so resources will be necessary for these needs to be satisfied in poorer nations. Yet the research also highlights that rich nations are getting less and less real gains from continued high levels of resource use. We must acknowledge that the consumption of the planet’s limited biophysical capacity by wealthy nations is not leading to significant social returns, and is coming at the expense of poorer nations who have greater need for material development.

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly if we are to move into the 21st century with hope not despondency – we have alternatives. We have a choice as to how we provide for ourselves and the billions we share the planet with. The links between the level of resource use and social indicators is where O’Neill et al. suggest the discussion now needs to head – what systems do we rely upon to provide for our needs and how can these be altered to make our societies sustainable? The results of the research imply there is indeed room for this much needed reform – for each biophysical threshold there are examples of countries achieving particular social goals whilst committing much less damage to the planet than average. As mentioned, wealthy nations aiming for sufficiency and looking for ways to materially ‘de-grow’ their economies (for example, through a widespread transition to renewable energy) would allow for many other nations to achieve the more material-based social minimums. In addition to this, social indicators such as democratic quality, equality and social support are associated currently with high resource use, yet their qualitative nature clearly embodies scope for being achieved in ways that doesn’t add biophysical burden. This shows how crucial it is that researchers and policy-makers pay serious attention to O’Neill et al.’s call to “characterize and improve both physical and social provisioning systems”.

The possibility that alternatives (and thus reasons to hope) exist shouldn’t feed complacency. As the study clearly shows, the predicament is severe. In addition there are good reasons to believe it may get worse. Further population growth will add even more pressure on planetary systems, and despite the positive intentions on greenhouse gas emissions reductions shown in the Paris Agreement, the political adherence to a traditional economic trajectory will continue to prove a huge obstacle to the necessary change. This essential research demonstrates the gravity of the situation and the challenge ahead. Individuals, business leaders and policy-makers alike must take note of its implications.

(1) The open source (as of Feb 2018) research in Nature can be found here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0021-4

(2) The interactive website based on the results of the study can be found here: https://goodlife.leeds.ac.uk/

(3) Read more about ‘doughnut economics’ in Kate Raworth’s book: Doughnut economics : seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist (2017). London: Random House.

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