7 Billion People, One Planet. Can Everyone’s Needs Be Met?

7 Billion People, One Planet. Can Everyone’s Needs Be Met?

Republished From The New York Times

his week: The one country that comes close to balancing sustainability and quality of life. Also, a study says Tuvalu isn’t shrinking after all. And we’re here to spoil your Valentine’s Day.

CreditClaire O’Neill/The New York Times
Providing for 7 billion. Or not.
By John Schwartz
Can we provide good lives for the seven billion people on Earth without wrecking the planet?
Daniel O’Neill of the University of Leeds and colleagues asked this enormous question in a recent paper in the journal Nature Sustainability and on an accompanying website.
Their answer is uncomfortable. After looking at data on quality of life and use of resources from some 150 countries, they found that no nation currently meets the basic needs of its citizens in a sustainable way. The nations of the world either don’t provide the basics of a good life or they do it at excessive cost in resources, or they fail at both.

To Dr. O’Neill, an economist, this was something of a surprise. “When we started, we kind of thought, ‘surely, out of 150 different countries, there will be some shining star’” with a high quality of life and moderate resource use. “We really didn’t find that,” he said, pointing only to Vietnam as coming close to meeting both measures.
The United States, on the other hand, provides a relatively high quality of life but fails on every measure of sustainability in the study. For example, it emits 21.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person per year, while the study’s sustainability threshold is 1.6 metric tons.
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Providing a good quality of life to everyone on the planet would require “two to six times the sustainable level for resources,” Dr. O’Neill said. “Something has to change.”
He did not say, however, that these findings doom humanity to poverty or environmental ruin. “It doesn’t tell us what’s theoretically possible,” he said, noting that the study only projects the results of continuing with business as usual.
The conclusions have caused a stir, especially in conservative circles. National Review denounced the paper as a call for “global wealth distribution,” saying “the goal clearly is a technocracy that will undermine freedom, constrain opportunity, not truly benefit the poor, and materially harm societies that have moved beyond the struggle for survival.”


Dr. O’Neill said that that reading of the paper missed the point — redistribution cannot solve the problem. Whoever owns the wealth, he said, “We need to improve both physical and social provisioning systems.”
At the same time, global income inequality is an issue, he added wryly. “I am all for taking away yachts and providing food, clean water and access to electricity to people in sub-Saharan Africa.”

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