Last year was the hottest year on record, and scientists are putting that down to human-caused climate change. The World Meteorological Organisation has announced that as we move towards the middle of 2017, the continuing record-breaking heat is leading us into “uncharted territory.”
A 2015 study revealed that civilisation has crossed four of the nine planetary boundaries, as a result of human activity. Along with climate change, these include the loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, and a hazardous alteration to nitrogen and phosphorous cycles.
With Donald Trump being inaugurated in January, there seems little hope for change, as the new US president has gone about filling his administration with climate change deniers. And with the ongoing neoliberal push for world economic growth, sustainability always comes as an afterthought.
We currently have a situation where people in developed countries are living beyond their means, in terms of the amounts of resources we’re using. Meanwhile, underdeveloped and developing nations are supposed to progress to attain these same levels.
However, it’s impossible for the 7.5 billon people on the earth today to all live at the same level of consumption as your average Australian does. There aren’t enough resources for this to occur, and to pursue that goal would see the planet’s demise.
Is it time for de-development?
A global hectare is a biological unit of measurement that allows researchers to account for the capacity of a region to regenerate its biological resources, after human demand for these resources has been met.
At present, the world only has enough resources for each person to consume 1.8 global hectares a year. However, the average consumption around the globe is 2.6 global hectares, which means that humanity is currently using 1.4 times as many resources as is sustainable.
US citizens are currently consuming 8.6 global hectares a year. However, in Australia it’s even higher, with your average person consuming 8.8, which is the same rate as Canada. In countries like Ghana and Guatemala, the consumption rate is at a sustainable level. While in Europe, people consume around 5.0 hectares a year.
As London School of Economics anthropologist Jason Hickel outlined in the Guardian, it’s time to move away from pushing countries of the global south to catch up with the global north, but rather richer countries need to “catch down,” or de-develop.
In the case of Cuba, life expectancy is 78 years, however, people are living at a fraction of the cost, with GDP per capita at US$6,789 and a consumption rate of just 1.9 global hectares a year.
The Caribbean nation has also achieved one of the highest literacy rates in the world at 99.8 percent, and the Cuban health care system is recognised worldwide for its excellence, as well as its accessibility.
Tunisia is another example of a nation with a good quality of life for its citizens, as well as having a sustainable consumption level and a relatively low rate of crime.
Hickle believes nations like these should be regarded as countries that are not “underdeveloped, but rather as appropriately developed.”
The Kerala model
Another example of a society that has achieved rapid social improvement without significant industrialisation or economic growth is the southern Indian state of Kerala. With a GDP per capita of only US$2,400, Kerala has a literacy rate of 94 percent and an infant mortality rate of 6, which is comparable with the United States.
While Kerala rates high on the crime scale in India, this is usually put down to people actually reporting crimes. A large number of these are minor offences, which include protesting offences that are recorded as rioting. But, when it comes to serious offences, the state rates very low.
Keralan society was traditionally matrilineal and this carried over so women have had easy access to education, as well as broad participation in public life. The local politics relies upon active participation, and this has resulted in pressure on the state to provide adequate healthcare and education.
While the Keralan model is not perfect, it demonstrates that there are alternatives ways to achieve quality of life without relying on economic growth.
Extreme wealth disparity
However, there are some great barriers to overcome if an equitable, appropriately developed world is to be achieved. Wealth disparity has reached extreme levels. Today, the world’s eight richest people have accumulated more wealth than the poorest four billion.
And since 2015, the richest 1 percent has owned more than the rest of the world’s 99 percent.
In 2015, the World Bank raised the international poverty line to $1.90 a day. And according to the bank, 702 million people – or 9.6 percent of the global population – were living below this line that same year. This was compared with 1.9 billion, or 37.1 percent, in 1990.
But sitting in Sydney, it’s hard to believe that anyone who’s surviving on $10.00 a day isn’t suffering extreme poverty.
An income for all
The idea of a universal basic income has been gaining traction in the western world in recent years. It’s an income provided to all citizens regardless of their situation, which would help alleviate increasing income disparity within a nation. However, with some definitions it works more as a supplement for those on low wages.
In January this year, Finland began a two year pilot program providing 2,000 randomly picked unemployed citizens with a guaranteed monthly wage. In recent years, small scale schemes have also been implemented in countries, such as Kenya, India and Uganda.
The introduction of a universal basic income would help lessen the income gap within a country. However, when you’re talking about a developed nation, it may not be addressing the global issue of societies living above the means of what is sustainable for the planet as a whole.
Gross national happiness
Havas Worldwide, an American advertising agency, released a report in 2014 that found 70 percent of the 10,574 people they surveyed in 29 countries believed that overconsumption is putting the planet and society at risk. And half of them said they could live without most of the items they owned.
Coast Rica is often hailed as a nation that ranks highly when measuring happiness indicators, although it’s not a particularly wealthy country. The GDP per capita is US$10,629. However, in terms of life satisfaction and social connectedness it rates way ahead of many developed nations and also has a life expectancy of 78 years.
In the South American nation of Ecuador the government is looking to the Indigenous culture of the Quecha peoples in order to modify the growth driven capitalist economy. The concept of buen vivir is concerned with what benefits the community as a whole and is ecologically-balanced.
Embedded in the recently revised Ecuadorian constitution, buen vivir places an emphasis on the rights of nature and the community first, and places the rights of the individual last. This being the complete opposite of the capitalist model.
The principles of buen vivir stress that people need to consume less and in a sustainable manner. Rather than buying an electric toaster imported from China at a very cheap price, a consumer should pay the “real value” of the product, which would account for the environmental costs of shipping and mining.
But is it all too late
Yet, these paradigm shifts are often localised within pockets of the world that don’t have the wide-reaching influence to sway the market-driven economies, as the nations that are leading the push for accelerated growth do.
And unless a force of change comes from within those powerful nations, then the ice caps will continue melting, and the temperatures will keep on rising, and who knows where that will take us from there.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.