Can all 7bn humans live a good life, without breaking the planet?

The Earth from space. Image: Getty/NASA.

Imagine a country that met the basic needs of its citizens – one where everyone could expect to live a long, healthy, happy and prosperous life. Now imagine that same country was able to do this while using natural resources at a level that would be sustainable even if every other country in the world did the same.

Such a country does not exist. Nowhere in the world even comes close. In fact, if everyone on Earth were to lead a good life within our planet’s sustainability limits, the level of resources used to meet basic needs would have to be reduced by a factor of two to six times.

These are the sobering findings of research that my colleagues and I have carried out, recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability. In our work, we quantified the national resource use associated with meeting basic needs for a large number of countries, and compared this to what is globally sustainable. We analysed the relationships between seven indicators of national environmental pressure (relative to environmental limits) and 11 indicators of social performance (relative to the requirements for a good life) for over 150 countries.

The thresholds we chose to represent a “good life” are far from extravagant – a life satisfaction rating of 6.5 out of 10, living 65 years in good health, the elimination of poverty below the $1.90 a day line, and so on.

Nevertheless, we found that the universal achievement of these goals could push humanity past multiple environmental limits. CO₂ emissions are the toughest limit to stay within, while fresh water use is the easiest (ignoring issues of local water scarcity). Physical needs such as nutrition and sanitation could likely be met for 7bn people, but more aspirational goals, including secondary education and high life satisfaction, could require a level of resource use that is two to six times the sustainable level.

Although wealthy nations like the US and UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens, they do so at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable. In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people. Worryingly, the more social thresholds that a country achieves, the more biophysical boundaries it tends to transgress.

Measures of a ‘good life’ vs overuse of resources for different countries (scaled by population). Ideally, countries would be located in the top-left corner. Image: O'Neill et al./author provided.

No country currently achieves all 11 social thresholds without also exceeding multiple biophysical boundaries. The closest thing we found to an exception was Vietnam, which achieves six of the 11 social thresholds, while only transgressing one of the seven biophysical boundaries (CO₂ emissions).

Vietnam has come closest to balancing sustainability with a good life, but still falls short in some areas. Image: O'Neill et al./author provided.

To help communicate the scale of the challenge, we have created an interactive website, which shows the environmental and social performance of all countries. It also allows you to change the values that we chose for a “good life”, and see how these values would affect global sustainability.

Time to rethink ‘sustainable development’

Our work builds on previous research led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which identified nine “planetary boundaries” that – if persistently exceeded – could lead to catastrophic change. The social indicators are closely linked to the high-level objectives from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. A framework combining both planetary boundaries and social thresholds was proposed by economist Kate Raworth, and is described in her recent book Doughnut Economics (where the “doughnut” refers to the shape of the country plots, such as the one above for Vietnam).


Our findings, which show how countries are doing in comparison to Raworth’s framework, present a serious challenge to the “business-as-usual” approach to sustainable development. They suggest that some of the Sustainable Development Goals, such as combating climate change, could be undermined by the pursuit of others, particularly those focused on growth or high levels of human well-being.

Interestingly, the relationship between resource use and social performance is almost always a curve with diminishing returns. This curve has a “turning point”, after which using even more resources adds almost nothing to human well-being. Wealthy nations, including the US and UK, are well past the turning point, which means they could substantially reduce the amount of carbon emitted or materials consumed with no loss of well-being. This would in turn free up ecological space for many poorer countries, where an increase in resource use would contribute much more to a good life.

The ConversationIf all 7bn or more people are to live well within the limits of our planet, then radical changes are required. At the very least, these include dramatically reducing income inequality and switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy as quickly as possible. But, most importantly, wealthy nations such as the US and UK must move beyond the pursuit of economic growth, which is no longer improving people’s lives in these countries, but is pushing humanity ever closer towards environmental disaster.

Daniel O'Neill, Lecturer in Ecological Economics, University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.