The current rate at which we consume natural resources far exceeds the planet’s capacity to renew biomass, according to a new study in the journal Nature Sustainability. Aside from highlighting the increasingly urgent need for more sustainable modes of living, the authors also illustrate how richer countries are shielded from the effects of these biocapacity constraints while poorer nations bear the brunt.
In order to ensure biological resource security, a country must either have access to sufficient resources within its territory to meet its population’s demand or possess the financial might to purchase these resources on the international market. Those that fail to meet either of these criteria face what the study authors call an “ecological poverty trap”, whereby their ability to procure sufficient food, building materials and other essentials is left in the balance.
To determine the percentage of the world’s population that lacks resource security, the study authors classified all countries according to their ecological deficit, which refers to the extent to which their consumption exceeds their own ecosystem’s capacity to regenerate. Based on this analysis, nations were classed as having a high deficit, a low deficit, a high reserve or a low reserve.
By cross-referencing this data with each country’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, the researchers were able to discern those countries that lack both the biological resources and the spending power to meet their population’s needs.
According to their analysis, some 2.5 billion people – representing 57 percent of the world’s population – lived in countries that fell into this ecological poverty trap in 1980. By 2017, however, this number had risen to 5.4 billion, encompassing 72 percent of the global population.
Looking at the overall rate of resource consumption, the authors also noted that we as a species used up 173 percent of the planet’s biocapacity in 2017, compared to 119 percent in 1980.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the data showed that residents of high-income countries with a high ecological deficit tend to also be the highest consumers. Despite accounting for just 14 percent of the world’s population, those in this category use up 52 percent of the planet’s resources. If everyone on Earth adopted the material demands of these countries, the researchers estimate that we would use 367 percent of the planet’s biocapacity each year.
Even within this group of wealthy nations, some are far less sustainable in their resource use than others. For instance, the authors calculate that if the global population consumed resources at the same rate as Dubai, we would use up 560 percent of the Earth’s biological resources each year.
Such high rates of consumption are currently sustained by purchasing resources from abroad, yet as availability declines, lower income nations are increasingly being outcompeted financially, leaving them in a precarious position.
Taken together, these figures point to the fact that resource insecurity is now a growing threat for all countries. Finding a solution to this problem will not be easy, although the authors highlight several means by which the situation could be rectified – including phasing out fossil fuels, encouraging people to have smaller families, and eating fewer animal-based foods.