Study: Humanity will need to make some drastic changes to keep the 'good life' going

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Bad news, Earthlings: It may be possible for everyone on the planet to live a "good" life. It may also be possible for humans to live within their environmental means.

But if present trends continue, there will be no way for both of these things to happen at the same time.

That's the bleak—if not entirely surprising—assessment of researchers from the Sustainability Research Institute at University of Leeds in England and the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin.

They came to this conclusion after considering 11 necessary ingredients of a well-lived existence. Some of the items on their list are basic human needs—income of at least $1.90 per day, electricity, enough food to eat and a life expectancy of at least 65 years. Others were social goals, such as equality, dependable friends and family, and a decent degree of (at least 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 10).

The researchers also considered the cost to the planet of achieving these things. They broke it down into seven categories such as emissions and use of natural resources like nitrogen, phosphorus and clean water.

What they found is that humanity has a lot of work to do.

Right now, there's not a single country on Earth that provides its people a good, sustainable life.

In fact, there aren't even any that come close.

The researchers, led by economist Daniel O'Neill of the University of Leeds, believe this is possible. But it will take some hard work.

Let's start with the good life.

Out of roughly 150 countries studied, only three—Austria, Germany and the Netherlands—currently provide their citizens with all 11 items on the list. An additional seven—Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Japan and Sweden—offer 10 out of 11. The United States achieves nine, as does Canada.

But none of them is close to doing so sustainably. Indeed, none of them meets more than two of the seven requirements set out for environmental sustainability.

The United States doesn't meet any of them—and misses some "by a wide margin," O'Neill said. America's per-capita CO2 emissions are 13 times higher than the sustainable level, its phosphorus use is eight times higher and its nitrogen use is seven times higher. As if that's not bad enough, its ecological and material footprints are both four times above sustainable levels.

At the other end of the spectrum are 35 countries where life is pretty miserable. Of the 11 necessities for a good life, these countries provided either none or just one.

In general, the more social benefits available in a country, the more likely that country is living beyond its environmental means. The reverse is true as well—countries that operate sustainably tend to offer fewer social benefits.

Perhaps the country that strikes the best balance is Vietnam, the researchers said. Though it meets only six of 11 social goals, it meets every sustainability goal but one. Vietnam's sole environmental transgression is that it emits too much carbon dioxide to keep the planet from warming by more than 2 degrees Celsius, the goal set forth in the Paris Agreement.

By the same measures, the country with the worst balance is Swaziland. This nation is as environmentally unsustainable as China, South Korea and the United Kingdom, missing five out of seven goals. And yet, despite using so many natural resources, it fails to give its citizens even one of the 11 necessary components of a good life, the researchers found.

All around the world, countries are doing a pretty poor job of living sustainably. Two-thirds of them emit too much CO2, and more than half use too much nitrogen and phosphorus. In addition, 56 percent of countries are using their land in an unsustainable way.

Only 16 countries in the analysis met all seven environmental goals.

Although the overall picture may look grim, the researchers saw some hopeful signs. For example, there were a few countries that managed to score well for education and life satisfaction while keeping their CO2 emissions way below the global median level (that is, the point at which half the countries were emitting more and half were emitting less).

This discovery "demonstrates that much more carbon-efficient provisioning systems are possible," O'Neill and his colleagues wrote.

Likewise, the data suggest that the nutrition, income, sanitation and electricity needs of each and every person on Earth could be met "without significantly exceeding planetary boundaries" for sustainability, they wrote.

If someone could wave a magic wand and reallocate Earth's resources so that they were shared equally by everyone, it would probably be enough to meet everyone's basic human needs (the list that includes enough food to eat and enough money to avoid extreme poverty, among other things), O'Neill said.

But it still wouldn't allow everyone to enjoy "more aspirational goals like secondary education and high life satisfaction," he added. For that, "we need to become two to six times more efficient at transforming resource use into human well-being."

In theory, wealthy nations could cut way back on their resource use while maintaining their achievements on the social front. Some straightforward first steps include "switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, producing products with longer lifetimes, reducing unnecessary waste, shifting from animal to crop products, and investing in new technologies," the researchers wrote.

And in a future world "with very different social arrangements or technologies," there could be a different equation for converting natural resources into human well-being that allows everyone to enjoy all aspects of the good , O'Neill said.

"Is this realistic?" he said. "I hope so, because the alternative could be environmental catastrophe."

The study was published Monday in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Explore further

A good life for all within the planet's means

More information: Daniel W. O'Neill et al. A good life for all within planetary boundaries, Nature Sustainability (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0021-4

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Feb 07, 2018
I wrote a hard science novel in 2008 called Forever Pleasure: a Utopian Novel. In story form, it describes two new forms of government that use science and technology to create a good life for everyone. This article is correct; we do need a new social arrangement and technology for vastly better future.

Feb 08, 2018
Ok. You cold fusionairs are nuts. Granted there is a probability for cold nuclear fusion in certain conditions, like a Bose-Einstein condensate of deuterium ions (and other exotic systems) worthy of scientific study, but some the are so shady you have to wonder their motives. Goto Jed Rothwell's website and read up.

Irregardless, the point made clear in the article are the practical solutions for carbon foot print reductions and sustainability take an effort. It takes an effort to be sustainable and live a modern lifestyle. It's not the wealth of a nation either. It's going to take a new type of leadership to bring a sustainable lifestyle to countries. Certainly not Trumpism and that ilk. No, it requires men and women with a vision for design of sustainable systems, engineers, scientists, teachers and farmers (... etc) that will make a sustainable future for us. If we want to survive, that has to happen.

Feb 08, 2018
It is impossible to predict what needs to be done to continue the good life. Which one of you could predict or design life. None of us can. It is an evolution. Society is the same way. It is the trillions of hourly decisions that move life forward and better. It is not the wiseness of the individual but the adjustments of actions of all on a minute by minute basis.

Feb 08, 2018
Unfortunately these are not the goals of society. Capitalism was found to be the best for scientific progress and has become the norm for leading countries. The only goal is to make as much money as possible. The people need government to step in for sustainability and the well being of the people in general, but it is unlikely they will. Humanity is too selfish in general or at least the people in power are to make the world the ideal it could be.

Feb 08, 2018
Fusion still looks to be 50 years away, barring some outlier like polywell machines actually working out. Thorium salt reactors are within our grasp, except that the masses have become superstitious about nuclear power, and the people that could actually make it so are too invested in the old fashioned, inefficient, and risky uranium pile.
The author makes a good point about product lifetimes. When I take over the world, almost all hard goods will have a legally required 10 year warranty, which should result in an average life of 30 to 50 years. We can't afford to keep replacing all the cars and appliances in the world every 15 years.
Tragically, probably our best hope (certainly the best hope of the biosphere) is a global epidemic to reduce our numbers by half or more, giving us an extra century to find some better technologies, and most importantly, some better social and economic philosophies.

Feb 08, 2018
The issue in a nut shell is humanity is stuck in it ways. Governments are really the only things that could get things done, but they have no insentive to fix it. In the US, the government doesn't care about the people, they only care about being re elected. They don't really care about the country either, otherwise we wouldn't have so many lobbyists. Humankind needs to come together and think together at some point or everything is going to fall apart.

@skystare then we have the issue in capitalism where there is no incentive to make products last a long time. The sooner it breaks the sooner you need to pay for a new one.

Feb 08, 2018
Tragically, probably our best hope (certainly the best hope of the biosphere) is a global epidemic to reduce our numbers by half or more
IMHO - something like a global epidemic is a *lot* more likely to end in global chaos, fractured tribal dynamics, fear and suspicion of anyone "different" and probably anarchy and dissolution of current stability than any better technology, social or economic philosophies

Feb 08, 2018
There's little enough incentive in capitalism to even make safe goods. Virtually every aspect of product safety is legally mandated. Warrantees can be the same way.

Feb 08, 2018
@Cap'n Stumpy
You may well be right. Much would depend on the speed of outbreak and the time for it to burn out.

Unlikely, anyway. We'll almost certainly have to find some other way to get out of the corner we've painted ourselves into.

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