Article image
07-09-2024

All of humanity could easily live a decent and ecological life

Humanity’s treatment of our planet remains unsustainable, with global warming, deforestation, and biodiversity loss posing significant challenges. Is it possible to fulfill the basic needs of all humans without exceeding the ecological boundaries of our planet?

Despite this, a team of researchers from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa), including Hauke Schlesier and Harald Desing, have recently argued that over ten billion people could have a sustainable, ecological life while maintaining a decent standard of living. 

Safe and just operating space 

“Humanity is continuing a path towards ecological instability. While resource consumption is unprecedented, significant parts of the human population are still deprived of decent living,” wrote the researchers.

The safe and just operating space postulates that it is possible to simultaneously stay within ecological limits and fulfill basic needs.

However, evidence that such a state can be achieved given existing population and available technologies is lacking.

“Here, we attempt to show whether a safe and just space exists by modeling material and energy requirements for satisfying basic needs with various technological scenarios,” they continued.

Planetary boundaries and ecological life

The study, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, employs the doughnut model, representing planetary boundaries and human needs, to demonstrate this possibility.

Ecological doughnut: The yellow circle in the middle indicates an adequate standard of living for all people. The red area outside the doughnut is the so-called risk zone, where irreversible environmental damage is likely. Credit: Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology
Ecological doughnut: The yellow circle in the middle indicates an adequate standard of living for all people. The red area outside the doughnut is the so-called risk zone, where irreversible environmental damage is likely. Credit: Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology

Schlesier and Desing, together with Malte Schäfer from the Technical University of Braunschweig, illustrate the model with two concentric circles: the outer circle represents the limits of key planetary resources like biodiversity and climate, while the filled inner circle indicates that basic human needs have been met. 

The area between these circles, the doughnut, represents the amount of natural resources that can be safely used beyond achieving an adequate standard of living.

Quantifying basic human needs

Quantifying basic human needs was the biggest challenge. After extensive research, the team created a hypothetical “shopping basket” of essential goods and services for an adequate standard of living, including food, water, housing, electricity, mobility, healthcare, education, public areas, and communication tools. 

“Of course, people have other basic needs, such as the need for security, but these do not necessarily have to consume material resources,” noted Schlesier.

Significant changes are needed 

Their findings suggest that a decent and ecological life for more than ten billion people is achievable, but only with significant changes to current systems. 

Desing emphasized the need to rethink energy systems and agriculture, as the most severely exceeded planetary boundaries are the climate system, biodiversity, and biogeochemical fluxes of phosphorus and nitrogen.

Achieving this standard requires eliminating fossil fuels and shifting to a predominantly plant-based diet

According to Schlesier, “this does not mean that meat consumption will no longer be possible in the future,” but it must be reduced from current levels due to the strain of factory farming.

Living standards must align with basic needs 

The researchers argue that living standards must align with basic needs. For the global South, this implies a significant rise in living standards, while in the global North, including Switzerland, resource consumption must be reduced. 

“However, this does not necessarily mean a reduction in well-being,” Desing said, as studies show well-being stagnates beyond a certain level of prosperity.

In wealthy countries, a reduction in living space and lower individual mobility can lead to a more appropriate standard of living. Public transport and healthcare can be expanded without significantly increasing environmental damage. 

Desing noted that with all these transformations, we would only just achieve the doughnut in our model, but there is hardly any leeway.

Ensuring a decent living for all

“Today, humanity is neither ensuring decent living for all, nor is it safeguarding the ecological livelihoods for future generations,” wrote the study authors.

Previous studies show evidence that progress can be made in aligning minimum living standards for all and long-term ecological stability.

However, evidence is lacking that this progress is sufficient to achieve a safe and just operating space (SJOS).”

“Here we show that it is possible to achieve decent living for all with at least 73% confidence with known technologies and under expected population scenarios,” the study concluded.

The researchers acknowledge that their model does not account for all potential future changes. Technological progress, different agricultural practices, and a shift towards a circular economy could create ecological leeway, supporting a sustainable future within Earth’s planetary boundaries.

—–

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and Earth.com.

—–

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day
Subscribe